JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It’s one of the oddest betting lines of the bowl season.
No. 24 North Carolina State (8-3) is a 2 ½-point underdog against Kentucky (4-6) in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl, a number the Wolfpack consider a slight heading into Saturday's game in Jacksonville.
Tickets for the Gator Bowl can be purchased here. As of Friday afternoon, available tickets ranged from $28 to $300. Attendance is capped at 25% of TIAA Bank Field, which is roughly 17,000 seats. Information on parking can be found here.
NC State has won four in a row, the longest streak in the Atlantic Coast Conference. It has eked out low-scoring games, won a couple shootouts and finished with more league victories than ever before.
The Wildcats, meanwhile, have the second-worst offense in the Power Five, lost to Southeastern Conference finalists Alabama and Florida by a combined score of 97-13 and have two wins in the past 11 weeks — against winless Vanderbilt and against a South Carolina team that played without its head coach and several key starters. Kentucky was so bad offensively that coach Mark Stoops fired two assistants less than 24 hours after the regular-season finale.
So the Gator Bowl line makes little sense to anyone outside Vegas. Could it simply be oddsmakers giving more credence to the heavyweight SEC? Or do they know something no one else does?
Either way, it's providing extra motivation for the Wolfpack.
“They can put us down all they want, but we know what we have in the locker room, and that’s it,” NC State quarterback Bailey Hockman said.
Added coach Dave Doeren: “It just adds to the chip that we carry here. … It just adds to the fuel that we have to prove people wrong.”
NC State was picked to finish 11th in the ACC in the preseason, but the team has been better than anyone expected despite losing quarterback sophomore quarterback Devin Leary to a broken leg in mid-October. Hockman has accounted for 14 touchdowns and thrown five interceptions in seven games since replacing Leary against Duke.
“(There’s) just multiple things this team has overcome and done,” Hockman said. “To me and to the rest of the players, I think we just look at it as it’s just another step to help propel the program and help make the program better than what it has been in the past and what it can be in the future."
Kentucky is 0-3 against ranked teams this season, scoring a total of 16 points in losses to Georgia, Alabama and Florida.
Hockman has an uncle who played at Kentucky, and the Gator Bowl matchup has prompted some trash talk.
Ryan Hockman was primarily a backup quarterback for the Wildcats between 1990 and ’92. The Ohio native played in 14 career games, finishing with 962 yards passing, six touchdowns and eight interceptions. His twin 13-year-old sons have been the ones talking smack with Bailey Hockman.
“There’s obviously no bad blood. It’s family before everything,” said Bailey, who landed at NC State after transferring from Florida State. “They’re all fired up about it. They’re like, ‘Hey, you know my dad played at Kentucky?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I know.’ They’ve been fired up texting me all the time and they’re loving it. It’s good for them. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Kentucky’s Vince Marrow, an associate head coach, tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator, will call plays in the bowl game. Stoops fired offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw after the team’s regular-season finale.
“I have all the confidence in Vince,” said Stoops, who hired Los Angeles Rams assistant Liam Coen as offensive coordinator and QBs coach. “Vince has done a great job. Any responsibility I give Vince and have given him through his time here, he’s done it very well.”
No single statistic has meant more to winning and losing for Kentucky and North Carolina State this season than turnover margin. The Wildcats are plus-12 in their four wins and minus-5 in their six losses. The Wolfpack are minus-7 in their three losses and plus-4 in their eight wins.