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Late bowl game in Birmingham has its advantages

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In a bowl game of silver linings, Kentucky football seems to have hit the jackpot.

Although Kentucky envisioned a breakthrough bowl game before the season started, the BBVA Compass Bowl, in Birmingham, Ala., isn't as disappointing as the bowl pecking order would have you believe.

In addition to most glaring positive Kentucky has already pitched fans on - one of 29 teams to make a fifth straight bowl appearance - there is a pretty long list of incentives the Kentucky team found itself with upon learning it would play Pittsburgh.

The first and foremost would be playing a program the caliber of Pitt.

"Everybody is excited," senior defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin said. "We're going against a conference champion team in Pittsburgh, who tied (with Connecticut) to go to the Fiesta Bowl. They have a great team, great defense, good running backs. It's going to be a challenge. Everyone is looking forward to it. It's not like you're going against a team that's a D-II school. We're going to somewhere other than Tennessee. It's a positive. We're going to a fifth straight bowl game."

Pittsburgh was in fact a tiebreaker away from the playing in a BCS bowl game. The Panthers tied with Connecticut for the conference championship, but because the Huskies' won the head-to-head matchups with Pitt and West Virginia, UConn will get the chance to play in a lucrative BCS game.

"(Pitt's) got some guys," head coach Joker Phillips said. "They've got some guys that we play against every week. It's a huge challenge for us. We've got an opportunity to play a champion of a conference."

The Panthers' defense is ranked 11th in the country and the offense features a two-headed running back monster in Dion Lewis and Ray Graham. The duo has combined for 1,788 yards and 20 touchdowns.

"You know they're going to run the ball at you, so the thing is, can we wrap up and tackle?" Lumpkin said.

Pittsburgh, despite a down year for the Big East, carries tradition and mystique that few other schools in the nation can match. Playing against a program that has claimed nine national championships, sixth most in college football, is actually somewhat more of a glamorous matchup than some of the other bowl opponent possibilities UK had left.

"Another opportunity should motivate our kids, regardless of who we're playing, but with a name like Pitt, a name team, I'm sure it will (motivate us)," Phillips said.

Making any type of bowl game presents extra practice opportunities for young players to develop, but the unique bowl date of Jan. 8 provides an even bigger window.

"The date of the bowl gives us even more practices, and we've got a lot of young guys," Phillips said. "We've got some really good young players that are really benefitting from these extra practices. We've used it in our player development and we will continue to do that in these upcoming practices."

In addition to the national exposure the game will receive as the third-to-last bowl game and second-to-last one before the BCS national championship, it also gives the players an opportunity to head home for the holidays.

The team will practice until Dec. 22 before returning on Dec. 28 or 29. The Cats will resume practice through the New Year before breaking Jan. 2 to travel to the bowl game. Practice at the bowl site in Birmingham will begin Jan. 4.

"I think this will be the first time since I've been here where I actually get to spend Christmas with my family," Lumpkin said. "That's a great positive. You get to go home, spend time with the family, and then we actually might be able to spend New Year's Eve and New Year's Day with them. That's rare because the past couple of years we've played the day before or practiced on Christmas Day. No one really knew it was Christmas."

Of course, if missing the holidays meant a BCS or New Year's Day bowl game, the Cats would be more than willing to sacrifice in the years to come. While the Kentucky players and coaches recognize the importance of going to bowl games, the achievement of just making it won't satisfy much longer.

"We don't want to be just going to bowl games," Phillips said. "The sixth straight bowl game, I want to be fighting for a title where (building a foundation is) not an issue. We're not talking about the sixth straight bowl game. We're talking about a title."

And what better proof a bowl launching pad than last year's two Compass Bowl competitors, South Carolina and UConn. South Carolina won the Southeastern Conference East Division this year and Connecticut will play Oklahoma in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.

"I was just happy to be watching the (SEC championship) game and getting texts from some of our players saying, 'We want to be in this game.' I think that's exciting when your players are talking like that," Phillips said.

It's a silver lining, but it's a pretty good one at that.

Johnson, Burden unavailable for bowl: Redshirt freshman defensive end Tristian Johnson and junior offensive tackle Chandler Burden will miss the bowl game with injuries. Both will have surgery to repair torn labrums.

Junior Billy Joe Murphy will start in place of Burden and senior Marcus Davis will be used as the "swing guy."

Lumpkin had surgery last week to clean up some damage in his knee but is expected to be available for the bowl game.

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