LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) -- For the first time in twenty years, Kentucky is playing a bowl game on New Year's Day when they face Penn State in the 2019 Citrus Bowl.
This is the third straight bowl appearance for the Wildcats, a streak that is tied for second in school history. Kentucky is looking for its first bowl victory since beating East Carolina in January of 2009.
Kickoff in Orlando is set for 1:00 on ABC on January 1.
With a 9-3 record, 2018 is just the fourth time in school history that the Wildcats have won nine regular season games. Kentucky has also tied or improved its record every season since Mark Stoops became head coach back in 2013.
MITCH BARNHART: Thanks everybody for getting here on a Sunday night. This is what we try to make an annual occurrence, to get to bowl games and have some fun. So we're excited for where we are and honored to be in a spot where we've accepted a bid to the VRBO Citrus Bowl. So really excited about that.
First, want to congratulate Penn State on a great year. Dr. Eric Barron is president at Penn State. Sandy Barbour, their AD, and James Franklin, the football coach, have known most of them -- don't know Dr. Barron, but I do know Sandy and James and congratulate them and look forward to seeing them in Orlando as we meet down there for the football game.
I know they have a pretty dynamic team. They've had a lot of success. And James has done a great job of building that program back to Penn State's traditional power. And so we're looking forward to being able to play them on New Year's Day and excited about that for our football program.
Extremely appreciative of Steve Hogan, executive director of the Florida Citrus Bowl, VRBO Citrus Bowl. I had a good conversation with Steve this afternoon. Was thrilled that they offered us the opportunity to come and play. They have a choice. And they chose our team and our fan base. And I think it speaks volumes of both for them to select us.
And so Pete Schaefer and Tom Sittema were on the phone as well. They're the president and chairman of the board of the Florida Citrus Bowl respectively. They were on the phone, and they extended their congratulations to our team, to Coach Stoops and our players. And I let them know it was an incredible honor for us to take this step in the program.
And this is a step for our program as we try to move this thing forward. And really excited about the chance to showcase our program on the national stage with a team like Penn State. So that was spectacular.
I'm really happy for our fan base. We get to go to a destination that I think is a lot of fun. And people are excited about that. The tickets have been -- the presale for the tickets, pre-order, if you will, have gone extremely well. We've got some left. We're working with -- those open to the public tomorrow and they're on our website. You can go through our ticket website and work through our ticket office. And certainly we want to paint Orlando blue -- and Kentucky blue; make sure to clarify that -- and that we get it to the right spot where our fans are in the stadium and cheering on the Wildcats. So we're looking forward to that.
It's a great time. And I'm happy for these guys sitting over here (players Kash Daniel and Terry Wilson). You will have a chance to visit with them. Probably want to visit with them more than you want to visit with me. I'm happy for them.
They've worked extremely hard to be 9-3, be 14th in the CFP rankings, to have an opportunity to have a 5-3 record in SEC play. To do the things on the field that they've done, to set new standards and do new things that we haven't done in an awfully long time at Kentucky is exciting.
To have a chance to go down and get our tenth win, incredible opportunity for us to do that on, again, on a national stage. And so looking forward to that.
And then the last for me is I've been in this league a long time. And to represent the Southeastern Conference against an opponent like Penn State in Orlando is a big deal. So I think we're looking forward to that and we look forward to representing the SEC. Let me stop and answer questions.
Q. Why do you think they chose Kentucky?
MITCH BARNHART: I think for a variety of reasons. One, we're deserving. Our program is very deserving. We've been ranked -- I'm not sure when we broke into the rankings, I want to say it's the end of September, somewhere in that range, and we've been there ever since.
We had the losses with Georgia and Tennessee back to back, but we never wavered out of the rankings and we hung in there. When the CFP rankings came out, we cracked that egg and got in there and moved up to 14th today.
So I think that in terms of where we were, if you look at their protocol and their procedures, we were supposed to be the team that was selected. I'm sure that they have choices and they could have gone outside that if they wished to. And there were some other teams just below us in those rankings. I think they knew our team was deserving. We've got some guys on our team that are certainly worthy of that recognition and that attention.
Second thing is our fan base. There's no question that our fan base plays a part in that. Our fan base follows -- and this is an opportunity, again, for them to see the quality of the Kentucky fan base.
We talk about the Big Blue Mist -- you can talk about whatever you want to talk about, but they come. And they've shown up when we needed them to show up. And we need them to show up in force. These guys deserve it. They deserve to have their fans out there in a big-time atmosphere, big-time game on New Year's Day. Kentucky fans, this is a chance to show why the Big Blue Nation is as special as it is.
Q. There's been a lot of talk about saying you should have been ahead of Florida in the CFP rankings. What were your thoughts and conversations, did you talk to (CFP selection chairman) Rob Mullens? (Note: Mullens worked for Barnhart at UK before becoming AD at Oregon.)
MITCH BARNHART: No, I don't think that's appropriate. I tried to steer clear of that. I respect where they are in their deal. They are a committee that has to sit behind closed doors and they work at that; I know how hard that is, being on the basketball committee (NCAA Basketball Tournament). It's hard.
What you do in that room is a hard. And you have a lot of vetting and splitting of hairs of where that is. And I respect that. It's a really hard process to be involved in.
And we could sit there and I could say, much like they did on 4, 5, 6 in those rankings, we could do the same thing on probably 8 through or 9 through 15 and be in the same spot and split hairs.
We could say there's teams, couple teams – (Texas) A&M beat us. And could they say, yeah, well, we beat Florida. We could play that game all day long.
And we could do that. Would we have liked to have had the opportunity? We would have been honored to do that. But I want to make sure people understand: we're honored to be where we are.
I won't say we're new to the party. We're not going to come into the party and act like we've arrived. We want to show up, show people we're appreciative. We're going to be involved in it. And we're going to work hard to stay in it.
I want people to understand that. I get it. It's hard. Those decisions to be in the 12 are really hard. And they had to make some decisions. That's okay. That's okay.
We finished 14th. And we'll go fight like heck to prove to people that maybe we earned a spot or two higher. But, more importantly, we get a chance to play a great opponent in a really cool venue, on a good day. We'll go do that.
Q. How important is it, do you think, to the fan base to go to a different place; nothing against past cities or past bowl games, but to go to someplace brand new?
MITCH BARNHART: It is. It's unique to go to Orlando over the Christmas break and have a chance to spend some time in a city that we haven't been to in terms of football, in a venue we've never played in before really special. A lot to do there. I think people will find something to do. I presume they can figure that out.
So I think they can have a lot of fun. And I think a lot of families will dial that in pretty clearly and be a part of that. I hope they will. We need everybody there. We need the Big Blue Nation there.
And so I'm asking them to come down and support these guys and let's give it our best go and go play a great football game on that day and have a lot of fun together as a community, as a commonwealth.
Q. Are you at liberty to say who else was in the running besides Kentucky for the Citrus Bowl?
MITCH BARNHART: I didn't ask. I didn't ask, and I didn't care. Once they said that we were the ones they chose, I'm good. Let's move on. Be thankful and move on.
So we're glad that they picked Kentucky. And I don't think that it was -- I would like to think it wasn't that close. I don't know that it was or wasn't. But that's their choice. They had a choice. And the fact that they chose our guys and our fans means a lot to us as a department.
So whatever it was, their process, I'm thankful. Steve's been a great friend of the league. I've had an opportunity to spend time with him in our meetings that we've had in Orlando.
They've hosted the SEC athletic directors on numerous occasions. We know many people on their staff very well and they've always wanted to have Kentucky. We've never been there as a school. So for us to have a chance to be in the Citrus Bowl as an institution for the first time, pretty cool deal.
And I think it's a great honor for our program. It's a step for our program. And I'm really proud of Coach Stoops and the staff and how hard they've worked and the things they've done to get there. So it's good stuff.
Q. Have they told you that, that they always wanted to have you?
MITCH BARNHART: Absolutely. I think everybody knows our fan base would -- there's only a couple of schools in our league that haven't been to that game. And we were one of them. So they started looking around. And sometimes, in different bowls, they put the helmets of the teams that have been there. Right? Well, ours was noticeably missing.
And so now they've got a brand new Kentucky helmet down there and we'll put that thing up there, and we can say we've been there. Now we've just got to go down there, find a way to win a ballgame.
Q. You had the nine wins. You flirted with a slot in the SEC championship game, New Year's Day bowl. When you hired Mark Stoops, how confident were you that a day like this was possible?
MITCH BARNHART: I don't think you're ever confident when you go -- you hope. And that's the thing. You don't want to lose hope. And for our fan base, for a long time, they've been hoping. And we're not there yet.
Our goal is still to get to Atlanta, to play in that championship game in Atlanta. That's still the goal. So that's goal number one.
And then goal number two is obviously to play in the CFP and get to that next spot. But you have to take steps to get there.
And what Mark has done, systematically, he's taken steps to get there. And so my hope was what we built -- we would build a defense over time that would allow us to not be so reliant and so leaning on our offense all the time to do that.
In this league, you must be able to stop somebody and you must -- in the fourth quarter, you've got to be able to stop them on a third and short and get the ball back for your offense.
We all know those scenarios. We've seen them play out time and time again. And Mark has built a team on both sides of the ball that has been able to, sometimes when the offense has struggled, the defense picked up the task. Sometimes when the defense has struggled, the offense has picked up the lead.
So Mark has done a job of building on both sides of the ball. And I think these kind of opportunities, when you get the chance to go to a bowl of this type, gives you a chance to continue to build on that success and puts you on a different stage. Really important for us as we use this in terms of recruiting and we use this in terms of building the heartbeat of our fans.