Taxslayer Gator Bowl: Clemson vs Kentucky

By George Somerville 

Bowl Season continues! 84 teams, 42 matchups, 35 different cities; if you thought the College Football postseason was restricted to the four teams in the playoffs, think again. In this game preview, we turn our attention to the Tax Slayer Gator Bowl:

Where and When

Tax Slayer Gator Bowl

Location: Everbank Stadium, Jacksonville, FL

Date: 29th December 2023

Time: Noon (ET)

Image credit: Ashleigh Snyder/ The Tiger

Story so far…


Well, both teams have had seasons neither they or we expected. In fact we anticipated  both teams to be playing NY6 Bowl games, so impressive are the resumes of the two programs.

Yet, here we are at the season end with an 8-4 Clemson and a 7-5 Kentucky facing off against each other in the Gator Bowl.

But let’s be honest, at one point in the season both head coaches would have happily settled for a bowl game, such was the poor start both of these programs got off to.

The Clemson Tigers had the unusual feeling of being 0-2 at the start of the season. Following defeats to Florida State and Syracuse the Tigers were 2-4 midway through the season with serious questions being asked of the direction that the program was heading in.

In fact, so serious was the situation that Clemson fans were questioning the position of head coach Dabo Swinney. Just ask Tyler from Spartanburg how that went.

However, there is a reason that Clemson is one of the biggest programs in college football. With signature wins over Notre Dame, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and near neighbours South Carolina, the Tigers second half of the season was a winning one which resulted in the invitation to the Gator Bowl. 


Much was expected of the Kentucky Wildcats also. Many, including me, expected the upwards trajectory of head coach Mark Stoops to continue. Sadly, it did not. Instead of competing with Georgia for the SEC East title, at times Kentucky were challenging Vanderbilt for the bottom of the conference.

While the Wildcats rescued their season with a 7-5 winning record, this masks the 3-5 conference record which was a sore one for Kentucky fans to take. Victory was secured against Vanderbilt, Florida and Mississippi State but there were defeats to Georgia (a heavy one), Tennessee, Alabama, South Carolina and the one which hurt most, against a resurgent Missouri.

In the midst of this it appeared that Mark Stoops was jumping ship to grab the vacant Texas A&M job. While its still not clear what happened, there was a change of heart by at least one party, with Stoops staying put in Lexington. None of this episode is likely to make Wildcat fans, boosters or recruits optimistic about the future. 

The Quarterbacks…

Image credit: Jacob Kupferman /The Associated Press

At Clemson it has been tough job for anyone to follow in the footsteps of Trevor Lawrence. While DJ Uiagalelei may well prove to be a NFL calibre quarterback, his time in Clemson was not a successful one. 

Next up is Cade Klubnik who also had a rough start to his time in a Tigers uniform. 19 touchdowns and 8 interceptions in his first year is not what people expected, but there were signs that Klubnik had turned the corner, specifically after the NC State game. It is no coincidence that Clemson’s form in the second half of the season improved as Klubnik’s play did also.

This means there are high hopes for the young Texan in his Junior year. 

A similar situation exists at Kentucky who are trying to find the heir to the crown Will Levis left behind when he started playing football on Sundays.

There was much hype about Devin Leary when he announced his transfer from NC State to Kentucky earlier this year. Much like the Wildcats performance this season, Leary has not lived up to the expectations set pre-season. 

While Leary’s stats show a different picture – he threw for 2,440 yards, 23 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in the 12 games he played. However, he completed just 193 of 343 passing attempts giving him a pass completion % of just 56%. In fact, despite OC Liam Coen returning from the NFL to solve Kentucky’s offensive woes, the Wildcats ranked last on offense in all of the FBS football – yes, even behind Iowa. 

In Leary’s 4 years at NC State he never had the opportunity to play in a Bowl game, which will be rectified this month. And of course, in Clemson he faces a familiar foe having played in the ACC for 4 seasons. Meaning Leary gets to play in a bowl game against a well known opponent all in his last game as a student athlete.

Prospects to watch…

Image Credit: John Clay/ Kentucky Sports


Ray Davis, Running Back – What hasn’t been said about Davis since his transfer from Vanderbilt for the start of this season.

Davis’ 1,066 rushing yards this season for the Wildcats makes him the first player in NCAA history to have 1,000-yard seasons for 3 consecutive teams (the other teams being Temple & Vandy).

With Ray Davis setting records at Kentucky and leading the SEC in rushing yards, he is sure to be high on NFL team big boards come Draft season next year.

Deone Walker, Defensive Tackle – Big things were expected from Walker after an explosive first year in Lexington. Walker did not disappoint recording 51 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, a team-high 5.5 sacks, and a team-high eight quarterback hurries during his sophomore campaign for Kentucky in 2023.

This performance has been more than enough to get him on the radar of just about everybody, but most recently Phil Steele’s SEC All-Conference team.


Barrett Carter, Linebacker Clemson has been impacted for this game by players declaring for the draft or entering the transfer portal, however Barrett Carter is not one of those players. Touted as a high day one pick, Carter overjoyed Clemson fans when he announced he would be staying at Clemson for his Senior year.

Carter is developing into an excellent player at Clemson. In 2022, Carter finished with 73 tackles in 13 games last season. This season he has 59 in 11 games heading into the Gator Bowl.

In 2022, he recorded 10.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks as a sophomore. This season he has nine and three respectively in those categories.

Jake Briningstool, Tight End  Briningstool is the Tigers’ #1 target when taking the aerial route to the red zone. Briningstool has a team-best five touchdowns this season. For the season, Briningstool has 41 receptions for 407 yards. Definitely one to watch.


Despite the terrible start to the season for Clemson, head coach Dabo Swinney has turned the Tigers around. Wins over Notre Dame and North and South Carolina has the Tigers back on top form. Persuading quarterback Cade Clubnik to return for his Junior year was huge news for Swinney and his coaching staff. Kentucky has had no such good news in recent weeks.

So with Clemson on this winning march – albeit too late to make a run to the CFP – and with momentum, I expect the Wildcats to lose out to a resurgent Tigers team.

Clemson 34-28 Kentucky

Mock Draft

George Somerville