The Kentucky Wildcats will make their way to Nashville to face the Vanderbilt Commodores on Saturday night for a matchup between SEC East foes trending in the wrong direction.
Following a 6-0 start to the season, Kentucky dropped its third straight game last Saturday night in heartbreaking fashion to rival Tennessee. Despite out-gaining the Vols 612-461 and dominating the time of possession, the Wildcats couldn't win the battle on the scoreboard in the 45-42 loss — their first at home this season. Now 6-3 overall and 4-3 in SEC play, Mark Stoops and his Wildcats will hit the road in search of a bounce-back win over the Commodores in their final SEC contest of the season.
Vanderbilt managed to put together one of its best offensive performances of the season in their most recent matchup against Missouri, but the Commodores still came up short in the 37-28 home loss to the Tigers — extending their SEC losing streak to 18 games. Vanderbilt sits at 2-7 overall and 0-5 in conference play under first-year head coach Clark Lea. Fresh off a bye, the Commodores will try to reverse their fortunes against rival Kentucky at home on Saturday night.
Kentucky leads Vanderbilt 47-42-4 in the all-time series. The Wildcats also have won each of the last five meetings against the Commodores, including a closely-contested 38-35 victory last season in Lexington.
Kentucky at Vanderbilt
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 13 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Kentucky -21
When Kentucky Has the Ball
It's been an up-and-down campaign for a Kentucky offense that averages 392 yards and 28.7 points per game. Quarterback Will Levis is coming off arguably his best performance of the season, racking up a career-high 419 total yards and five touchdowns against Tennessee. Unfortunately, Levis also threw a momentum-changing pick-six in the 45-42 loss to the Vols, marking his 10th interception of the season (tied for the most in the SEC). For the year, Levis has completed a respectable 65.7 percent of his pass attempts for 1,848 yards and 17 touchdowns, adding 231 yards and five scores on the ground.
Much like Levis, star wide receiver Wan'Dale Robinson also put together a career-best performance against Tennessee, accounting for 13 catches for 166 yards and a touchdown. Levis' go-to target is tied for the SEC lead in receptions (71). Robinson also ranks second in the conference in receiving yards (825) and is tied for fourth in receiving touchdowns (6). Wide receiver Josh Ali also had a nice performance against the Vols, catching seven passes for 66 yards. The Kentucky passing attack should be able to keep that momentum rolling on Saturday night against a Vanderbilt defense that ranks dead last in the SEC against the pass, surrendering 278.8 yards per game through the air. The Wildcats also have little to fear from a Vanderbilt pass rush that has generated just seven sacks all season — tied for the fewest in the country.
The Kentucky run game also bounced back nicely after a pair of lackluster performances against Mississippi State and Georgia. The Wildcats rushed for 225 yards and three touchdowns against the Vols, led by Chris Rodriguez Jr. with 109 rushing yards. For the season, Kentucky is averaging 180.8 yards per game, which ranks 51st nationally. Rodriguez ranks second in the SEC with 918 rushing yards and five touchdowns on the season. Kavosiey Smoke has chipped in with 349 yards and two scores on 69 carries. Rodriguez should have no problem eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark on Saturday against a fairly generous Vanderbilt run defense that has allowed 183.9 rushing yards per contest. The Commodores are led defensively by linebacker Anfernee Orji, who has compiled a team-high 70 tackles and 9.5 tackles for a loss.
When Vanderbilt Has the Ball
It's been a tough row to hoe for a struggling Vanderbilt offense that averages a mere 301.2 yards and 14.9 points per game. The big question this week is — who will be behind center for the Commodores against Kentucky? Ken Seals has returned to practice after missing the last three games with a finger injury. But according to Lea, Seals will need to be at 100 percent to return to his starting role. That could mean that Mike Wright will get his fourth start of the season. Or, we could see some combination of both quarterbacks on Saturday. Regardless, neither signal-caller has been very effective throwing the football this season. Seals has been disappointing in his second season, completing 55.3 percent of his passes for 1,086 yards with five touchdowns and seven interceptions in six games. Wright hasn't been much better, completing just 53.9 percent of his pass attempts for 545 yards with 5 touchdowns against four interceptions. That said, Wright is the Commodores' second-leading rusher with 286 yards and adds a dual-threat component to the Vanderbilt offense that Seals lacks.
In terms of pass catchers, Chris Pierce Jr. leads Vanderbilt with 37 receptions. Will Sheppard leads the team in receiving yards with 466. And Cam Johnson leads the Dores in receiving touchdowns with four. Vanderbilt will be paired against a Kentucky defense that is giving up 230.2 passing yards per game. However, the Cats have been far more generous through the air of late, allowing 910 yards and eight touchdowns over their last three games. Unfortunately, the Vanderbilt passing attack isn't well-equipped to capitalize on this favorable matchup.
A run game that has accounted for just five touchdowns all season, averaging 117.3 rushing yards per contest, isn't well-equipped either. The Commodores hope to get leading rusher Rocko Griffin (296 yds, 2 TDs) back from injury this week, but his availability remains in question. That could leave freshman Patrick Smith (241 yds, TD) to shoulder most of the load. Either way, the Commodores will have their work cut out for them against a stingy Kentucky run defense that ranks 25th nationally, giving up 119.2 rushing yards per contest. Linebacker Jacquez Jones leads the Wildcats in tackles (69). Standout defensive lineman Josh Paschal ranks second in the SEC in tackles for a loss (11), and linebacker J.J. Weaver ranks fourth in the conference in sacks (6.5).
Kentucky appears poised to get back to its winning ways. And the Wildcats shouldn't have much trouble doing just that on Saturday night against a struggling Vanderbilt squad that hasn't won an SEC game in over two years. The Wildcats do have an issue with turnovers, ranked second-to-last in the nation in turnover margin at -12. But as long as they take care of the football, it should be smooth sailing against an inferior Vanderbilt team that struggles mightily on both sides of the football.
Prediction: Kentucky 37, Vanderbilt 17
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— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.