The Kentucky Wildcatsand Vanderbilt Commodores will meet in Nashville on Saturday to renew what has been one of the SEC’s more closely contested rivalries over the years. The Wildcats have won each of the last three contests, including a 14-7 defensive slugfest last season in Lexington, to garner a narrow 45-42-4 lead in the all-time series against the Commodores.
It was tough sledding for both teams in SEC action last week. Kentucky (4-5, 2-5 SEC) jumped out to an early 13-0 lead over Tennessee at home, ultimately outgaining the Vols in yardage and controlling the clock for much of the night. But 17 unanswered points and a late-game Tennessee goal-line stand proved to be too much in a heartbreaking 17-13 loss to the Vols. Mark Stoops’ Wildcats now make their way to Music City for their final road (and SEC) contest of the season, where a bounce-back win over the Commodores would go a long way in keeping their bowl hopes alive and well.
Vanderbilt’s (2-7, 1-5) bowl hopes were definitively squashed last week in "The Swamp" courtesy of a 56-0 shellacking at the hands of No. 10-ranked Florida. The Commodores have now been outscored 80-7 since upsetting a ranked Missouri team on Oct. 19. And they have not scored a single point since quarterback Riley Neal left the South Carolina game in the first quarter with a concussion. Neal returns on Saturday, but will that be enough for Derek Mason’s Commodores to score their second SEC win of the season in upset fashion against the Wildcats?
Kentucky at Vanderbilt
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 16 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Kentucky -10.5
When Kentucky Has the Ball
Kentucky’s offensive game plan will lean almost exclusively on a run game that ranks fifth in the SEC and 26th nationally (213 ypg). That effort will be spearheaded by wide receiver-turned-quarterback Lynn Bowden Jr., who leads the SEC in both yards per carry (7.05) and all-purpose yards (1,313). Running backs A.J. Rose (552 rushing yards, 4 TDs), Kavosiey Smoke (399, 5) and Chris Rodriguez (212, TD) complete one of the SEC’s most dangerous rushing attacks — one that has racked up close to 600 yards and six touchdowns on the ground over the last two games alone. That bodes well against a Vanderbilt run defense that ranks 13th in the SEC (103rd nationally), allowing almost 200 rushing yards per contest.
What doesn’t bode well is Kentucky’s inability to successfully throw the football with Bowden at quarterback, making the Wildcats largely one-dimensional on offense. That certainly played a role in last week’s loss to Tennessee, which is why we could get a few glimpses of backup quarterback Sawyer Smith this week against the Commodores — particularly in down-and-distance situations. While Smith hasn’t played well since injuring his shoulder earlier in the season against Florida, he probably gives the Cats their best chance for success through the air against a Vanderbilt defense that also struggles mightily against the pass, ranking 113th in the nation in that regard.
When Vanderbilt Has the Ball
The good news is that the Vanderbilt offense will get an upgrade at quarterback this week with the return of Riley Neal. The bad news is that Neal has been fairly inconsistent in his own right this season, completing just 58.6 percent of his passes for 1,193 yards with six touchdowns and four interceptions. And a Kentucky pass defense that ranks second in the SEC (15th in the nation) isn’t going to make life any easier for Neal on Saturday. That also goes for Vandy’s top pass-catching threats — Kalija Lipscomb and Jared Pinkney. The Wildcats are giving up just 184.1 passing yards per game and have allowed the fewest passing touchdowns (6) in the conference this season. An anemic Vandy offensive line that has surrendered the most sacks in the SEC (23 in 9 games) could also have its hands full with a solid Kentucky pass rush led by Calvin Taylor Jr. (6 sacks).
The Kentucky defense has been far less successful in stopping opposing run games, allowing 165 rushing yards per game (12th in the SEC). That should give elite running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn a fighting chance to get something going on the ground on Saturday. Even with the deck stacked against him most weeks, Vaughn has still managed to tally 818 rushing yards (fourth in the SEC) to go along with six rushing touchdowns in nine games. He also ranks second on the team in both receptions (24) and receiving yards (248). That being said, Vaughn will need some help from the Vanderbilt passing game and his offensive line to get the most out of this favorable matchup.
Riley Neal’s return at quarterback should give the Commodores just enough of a passing threat to keep the Kentucky defense honest and help Ke’Shawn Vaughn find some traction in the run game. The question is: Can the Vanderbilt defense slow a potent Kentucky ground game and do-it-all athlete Lynn Bowden Jr.? That seems highly unlikely, and Vanderbilt is still going to have a difficult time finding the end zone in a game where possessions and points will be at a premium.
Prediction: Kentucky 24, Vanderbilt 13
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.