Back in the postseason, NC State returns to Gator Bowl

NC State has had plenty to celebrate during its bounce back 2020 season (Photo courtesy of the ACC)

The NC State football team is back in the postseason after missing out a year ago.

And it’s returning to a familiar place.

The Wolfpack on Sunday accepted an invitation to play in the Gator Bowl, the same game that served as the venue for its most recent postseason appearance, following the 2018 season.

Coach Dave Doeren’s team will take on Kentucky at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Florida at noon on Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021.

For State, the game will be an opportunity to extend a bounceback season that has seen it improve from one ACC win to a school-record seven and four wins overall to eight. Unlike its previous trip, a 52-13 loss to nationally ranked Texas A&M, the Wolfpack (8-3) will likely be favored against an SEC opponent that finished the regular season with a 4-6 record.

“Our players and coaches felt like we weren’t done yet,” Doeren said. “It’s another opportunity to compete. We’ve invested a lot to this point. It’s the last time this group will get to play together, and we wanted to have one more ride and a chance to play a team outside of our league.

“We have great respect for the SEC. (Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops) and I have known each other forever, so that will be kind of cool getting to play against each other in this game. But these kids are a special group. I would have hated to not have the opportunity to go out with them one more time.”

The Wolfpack had to overcome several major obstacles to get its program back on the winning track, only some of which were related to the coronavirus pandemic that has affected every team around the country.

Despite losing starting quarterback Devin Leary to a season-ending injury against Duke on Oct. 17, the team finished strong by winning its final four games behind the passing of backup Bailey Hockman.

While Kentucky comes into the game with a losing record — a rarity made possible by the NCAA’s decision to waive its minimum-win requirement for postseason eligibility because of COVID-19 — four of its losses came to opponents that were ranked among the nation’s top 10 at the time they played.

For the Wildcats, the matchup with the Wolfpack is an opportunity to put a disappointing 2020 behind it and get a head start on next season.

“There’s always a fine balance in these bowl games, because you certainly want to get a jumpstart and you want to continue to develop your young players,” Kentucky’s Stoops said. “It sets the tone for the future. But you also want to play well for your seniors. So it’s important for a lot of reasons that you want to go out and play the very best you can.”

State and Kentucky have met three times previously, with the Wildcats holding a 2-1 edge. The most recent meeting came in 1970.

This will be the Wolfpack’s 33rd bowl appearance and fifth in the Gator Bowl, having played in the inaugural game in 1947, along with appearances in 1992, 2002 and 2018.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, bowl festivities will be shortened from the usual 4-5 days to just two. According to Gator Bowl CEO Rick Catlett, a limited number of tickets will be made available to the participating schools. Despite attendance being capped at 20% of stadium capacity, Catlett said there will be “a very good revenue share for both schools.”

While many teams around the country have decided to opt-out of the postseason because of coronavirus concerns and travel difficulties, athletic director Boo Corrigan said turning down the bowl invitation was never an option for the Wolfpack.

“It’s been such a crazy year, but we’ve been so united in where we’ve been this year,” Corrigan said. “The opportunity to play one more, to play against the University of Kentucky, to play in Jacksonville. All year coach Doeren has been talking about not blinking. This wasn’t an opportunity to blink, it was an opportunity to move forward.”