JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- When the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets lost three straight games, they didn't sulk because their chance at an ACC title was all but gone.

Instead, they set and strived for new goals.

The Yellow Jackets had jumped out to 3-0 to start the season, including a 17-14 win against Boston College in Dublin, Ireland. Yet, they suffered back-to-back losses to ranked-Clemson and Miami, followed by blowing a comeback against Pitt.

Fans feared they were witnessing a repeat of the Jackets' three-win 2015 season.

In an effort to turn things around, head coach Paul Johnson and his team decided to set a goal of finishing the season with at least nine wins. They would finish the second half their season 5-1, 8-4 overall, and return to a bowl game after missing one last year for the first time in 18 years.

Now, the Yellow Jackets have a chance to achieve their mid-season goal and earn their ninth win by beating the Kentucky Wildcats (6-5) at the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl on Dec. 31 at 11 a.m.

"We'll have to win here," Johnson said at a press conference for the bowl game on Thursday. "That's going to be the main focus, getting ready to play a good Kentucky team."

That's the main focus, but for both head coaches, the bowl game and practices leading up to it are also a good chance to get a glimpse at how the team will look next season.

Since its his first bowl game as a head coach, Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops said he has been picking Johnson's brain about how to utilize the practice time leading up to the bowl. Bowl game practices are a challenge for coaches since the schools are wrapping up the semester with final exams.

Johnson said he sees the practice time as not only an extension of the season, but the beginning of the next.

"We spend a lot of time with our young guys, maybe not as much as some of the others. What we're really trying to do is get them prepared for spring practice. So, get them up to speed because all year they've been on scout teams and haven't had a chance to do that. So we'll take the end of each practice, right up to the last week before the bowl game, and we'll work with those guys on fundamentals," Johnson said.

The Yellow Jackets are a relatively young team with few seniors. Johnson has nine starters on offense returning next season and eight on defense. But the bowl game will be quarterback Justin Thomas' final game with the Jackets.

Thomas has 1,454 passing yards and eight touchdowns while rushing for 562 yards and five touchdowns.

He helped lead the Yellow Jackets to victories in five of their last six games, including a rally against the Georgia Bulldogs in Sanford Stadium to become the first Tech quarterback to beat the Bulldogs in their stadium twice since Joe Hamilton in 1998. He's been the starter for three seasons.

Johnson and the Jackets have gotten a glimpse of backup quarterback Matthew Jordan, who will likely start under center in Johnson's triple-option offense next season, a few times throughout the season. But the bowl game practices will give him a chance to get more reps before the offseason begins.

Two weeks after falling to the Georgia Bulldogs, the Wildcats were able to become bowl-eligible with a win against Austin Peay. They finished the regular season by upsetting No. 11 Louisville.

"Beating Louisville was a big boost for us, so we need to keep it going," Stoops said.

Excitement is rampant at Kentucky, who is in its first bowl game since 2010. The program has already sold all of its tickets allotted for the bowl game. Kentucky has always had enthusiasm for basketball, now it's football's turn.

"There's no excuses. We have the support. We have the facilities. We're well on our way to building a great program at Kentucky," Stoops said.