For the 3rd time in 8 seasons, Kentucky will finish its season in the Gator Bowl. Mark Stoops’ Kentucky bowl streak began in 2016 in Jacksonville, and the Wildcats will head back that way to take on the Clemson Tigers. With some back and forth ties, a lengthy series history, and a chance for the game to be a referendum on the portal, there’s plenty to talk about.

Here are 5 things to know about the Gator Bowl:

Bowl history

Again, it’s Kentucky’s 3rd appearance in the Gator Bowl. In the 2016 matchup, Stoops’ 7-5 Wildcats faced Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech team, and struggled with the Yellow Jackets’ option attack in a 33-18 loss. Kentucky evened their mark in the bowl with a 23-21 win over No. 24 NC State in 2020. That victory, sealed by a late interception from linebacker DeAndre Square, finished UK’s season at 5-6.

Clemson will be playing in its 10th Gator Bowl, with a 4-5 mark heading into this matchup. With its selection, the Tigers surpass Florida for the most appearance in the game. Clemson hasn’t played in the Gator Bowl since losing to Nebraska 26-21 after the 2008 season. Clemson’s last win in the game was in 1989. Dabo Swinney was just about to join Alabama as a wide receiver that year.

UK and Clemson have played each other in 3 bowls, with Clemson winning the 1993 Peach Bowl and the 2009 Music City Bowl. Kentucky took the 2006 Music City Bowl, marking their first bowl win in 22 years. All 3 games were decided by a single score.

(Non-bowl) Series history

While those 3 bowl games are their most recent matchups, Kentucky and Clemson are not strangers. They played 3 regular-season games against each other in the 1980s, with Kentucky winning the last regular-season matchup 26-7. Kentucky actually leads the all-time series 8-5, although much of that advantage is old history, with Clemson holding a 4-2 series advantage after 1980.

Clemson/UK connections

The most obvious connection is Tiger OT Walker Parks, who played his high school football at Frederick Douglass High in Lexington, just a few miles from UK’s campus. Parks was injured back in Week 4 and has missed the rest of the season, so he won’t get the chance to face his home-state school.

Kentucky kicker Chance Poore, who has been a kickoff specialist for the Wildcats, hails from Anderson, South Carolina, a few miles from Clemson’s campus. Likewise, defensive back Andru Phillips is from Mauldin, which is less than an hour from Clemson. Phillips recently announced his intention to enter the upcoming NFL Draft, so a home showdown will be his last college football matchup.

And Clemson football/UK basketball connection? How about Tigers legend Trevor Lawrence being high school buddies with former UK hoops point guard Ashton Hagans? Hagans called Lawrence “my best friend” in a 2018 interview. They played football and basketball together. Small world.

Portal friendly vs Portal hostile

One of the major stories around the Clemson program is the continued refusal of Coach Dabo Swinney to even reluctantly embrace the transfer portal. Swinney has no real interest in supplementing his highly-ranked recruiting classes with transfers.

On the other hand, Stoops and Kentucky have to be one of the portal’s biggest beneficiaries. Among the UK standouts whom the Wildcats landed are Devin Leary, Will Levis, standing running back Ray Davis, and New York Giants wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson.

Certainly, if the game turns on a transfer, that would seem to favor Kentucky over the Tigers.

Stat standouts and a prediction

Clemson was surprisingly quiet in big plays this season. The Tigers had just 43 20+ yard plays on the season, which ranked 12th in the 14-team ACC.

The passing game ranked 11th in the ACC in efficiency. That said, Clemson is incredibly stingy in pass defense, ranking 2nd in the ACC behind Florida State in efficiency and holding offenses to 11 touchdowns and 14 interceptions through the air.

The Tigers are just 12-for-21 on field goals, worst in the ACC. This probably contributes to Clemson also being worst in the ACC in red-zone efficiency, with just 71% its trips resulting in points.

For a Kentucky team that has been prone to running hot and cold, much of the above sounds like music to their ears. Quality passing attacks and red-zone efficiency have been two significant problems for the Wildcats. Clemson comes into the bowl with 4 consecutive wins, but the Tigers were just 2-3 this season in 1-score games.

But this is a Kentucky team that lost 5 of its past 7 games, and with possible portal defections and opt-outs yet to be announced, picking the Wildcats feels risky. Will Davis play? If so, the Wildcats will have a puncher’s chance. If not, it could be a long game for UK. Still, as a first impression:

Prediction: Clemson 28, UK 21