It was only fitting, the Kentucky head coach noted Sunday during a teleconference officially accepting the Wildcats' bowl bid, that his program is headed to Jacksonville to face Georgia Tech in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
"It's kind of been our mantra all year, to be honest with you, knocking down doors, and this is another one," Stoops said.
Indeed, Kentucky will be checking off another first on New Year's Eve. The Cats' presence in the event means that every SEC program will have played in the game formerly known as the Gator Bowl, now in its 72nd year.
"We’re just trying to knock down doors one at a time, and again, it’s an honor and a privilege to be there and play in the TaxSlayer Bowl with its great history, and facing coach (Paul) Johnson and Georgia Tech. It will be a real challenge for us but we’re excited about it," Stoops added.
It marks the 16th bowl appearance in UK history and the first under the fourth-year head coach, whose program stands to benefit from the extra practice time a postseason appearance affords players.
Kentucky (7-5, 4-4 SEC) is still coming down from an emotional high after ending the regular season with a 41-38 upset of No. 11 Louisville and Heisman Trophy favorite Lamar Jackson in the Governor's Cup game.
In each of the previous two years, the Cats needed a victory over the arch-rival Cardinals to clinch a bowl bid. They came up empty. This time, they took care of business a week earlier by defeating Austin Peay for elusive win number six after starting the season 0-2.
"We didn’t get off to the start we wanted to but it’s about how you finish," Stoops said. "I think it was good for us to get that sixth victory before we played Louisville to take a little pressure off our team and let us play go in there and play with a lot of confidence and play loose. We really played a good football game. I think our best football is ahead of us and hopefully we can continue to improve through these bowl practices because we’ll need it."
Georgia Tech (8-4, 4-4 ACC) is riding a three-game winning streak into the TaxSlayer Bowl and owns a pair of wins against UK common opponents in Vanderbilt (38-7) and Georgia (28-27). The Cats split their two games with the Commodores and Bulldogs.
The Yellow Jackets feature one of the top rushing attacks in college football, averaging 257 yards per game.
"Anybody who knows anything about college football knows coach Johnson and the success that he’s had and the difficulties that it is of defending that offense and what they do as a whole team," Stoops said.
The UK boss knows about preparing for the Jackets. He was defensive coordinator at Florida State when the Seminoles faced Georgia Tech in the 2012 ACC championship game.
"It's definitely different, and it's a lot of work," Stoops said. "... Fortunately, we do have some extra time, so hopefully we will put that to good use and have a good plan."
Kentucky's not too shabby in running the ball, either. The Cats produced a pair of 1,000-yard rushers, Boom Williams and Benny Snell Jr., and rank just behind Georgia Tech at No. 16 nationally with 241 yards per game.
“I think certainly both teams have shown that they can run the ball, but I think both teams also have shown the capability of making very big plays, both in the run game and with some play action," Stoops said. "... But I’m sure with the ability to run the ball it also creates the opportunity for big plays, so I’m sure both teams will be looking to try to limit that from our opponent.”