The Kentucky Wildcats and Vanderbilt Commodores will meet in Nashville on Saturday for the 90th time in a highly competitive series that dates all the way back to 1896. Kentucky holds a slight 43-42-4 lead in the series all-time, illustrating just how closely matched these rivals have been over the years. The Wildcats broke the series tie last season with a 20-13 victory over the Commodores in Lexington. But Vanderbilt has won four of the last six games in the series, including each of the last three contests played in Nashville.
Vanderbilt (4-5, 0-5 SEC) will make its return to SEC action after snapping a five-game losing streak with a 31-17 victory over Conference USA’s Western Kentucky. Derek Mason’s Commodores will now look to even up the all-time series with Kentucky, securing their first conference win of the season in the process. A win also would go a long way in keeping the Commodores' postseason hopes alive. Vanderbilt must come away with victories in two of its final three games of the season to become bowl eligible.
Meanwhile, Kentucky (6-3, 3-3) will attempt to get its season back on track following a tough 37-34 loss at home to Ole Miss last week. The Wildcats’ second defeat in three games officially eliminated them in the race for the SEC East crown. The good news is that they are already bowl eligible. And a road victory over division foe Vanderbilt would provide some much-needed momentum, gettting the Wildcats back above the .500 mark in conference play prior to heading into difficult matchups against Georgia and Louisville to close out the season.
Kentucky at Vanderbilt
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 11 at 4 p.m. ET
TV Channel: SEC Network
Spread: Vanderbilt -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Benny Snell Jr. keep the momentum rolling?
Following a somewhat sluggish start to the season, Kentucky’s feature running back seems to be hitting his stride. Snell (above, right) has capitalized on two of the SEC’s weaker run defenses over his last two games, rushing for a combined 356 yards and six touchdowns. The impressive effort has propelled him to an SEC-best 897 rushing yards on the season. He has a favorable opportunity to feast on yet another generous SEC run defense on Saturday.
Vanderbilt currently ranks No. 12 in the SEC (No. 115 in the FBS) against the run, surrendering 211.6 rushing yards per game. This matchup appears even more promising for the sophomore running back when you consider that the Commodores have allowed more rushing touchdowns (23) than any other defense in the conference. While Snell isn’t likely to match his 178-yard, three-touchdown average over the last two weeks, his recent run of success should continue against the leaky Vanderbilt run defense. The question now is, will it be enough to get the Wildcats back into the win column?
2. QB Kyle Shurmur and RB Ralph Webb aim for school records
Vanderbilt's quarterback has put together a solid resume of his own over the last two weeks, as Shurmur has thrown for 553 yards, six touchdowns and just one interception. For the season, the junior has one of the best touchdown-to-interception ratios in the nation at 20-to-3. He’s also on pace to break the Commodores’ single-season passing touchdown record. Shurmur needs two touchdown passes on Saturday to surpass Jay Cutler (21) and tie Whit Taylor (22) on the school’s all-time list. Not only will Shurmur have a good shot at the record, but he also could be in for a great day overall against a Kentucky defense that currently ranks dead last in the SEC against the pass (No. 120 in the FBS), allowing 279.4 yards per game through the air.
Webb already holds Vanderbilt records for single-season and career rushing yards. And he is just two rushing touchdowns shy of tying Zac Stacy for the most career rushing touchdowns in school history with 30. In order to get there, Webb will need to get past a Kentucky run defense that has allowed just 11 rushing touchdowns in nine games. That said, seven of those touchdowns have come over the Wildcats’ last four games, which bodes well for Webb’s chances to reach yet another Vanderbilt milestone.
3. Stephen Johnson
The Kentucky quarterback was solid for much of the first half of his senior campaign. However, his production in the passing game has dipped significantly of late. In his last three games, he has passed for a combined 367 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions, putting much of the offensive burden on Benny Snell Jr. and the run game. And while Snell has been successful in that role, the Wildcats are still a disappointing 1-2 during that stretch.
That is why it will be crucial for Johnson to return to early season form and get some semblance of a passing game going on Saturday. The Wildcats beat the Commodores last season in spite of a poor performance from Johnson, but that will prove to be more difficult this time around on the road. And success probably isn’t going to come easy against a solid Vanderbilt pass defense. The Commodores have held opposing passing games to just 191.3 yards per game (No. 29 in the FBS) and 11 touchdowns through the air in nine games.
The Commodore run defense will have its hands full trying to stop Benny Snell Jr. on Saturday, while a struggling Kentucky pass defense will have to contend with a Vanderbilt passing attack that is starting to heat up behind the arm of Kyle Shurmur. But the x-factors for these teams will be the performances of Ralph Webb and Stephen Johnson. Both defenses will focus on the strength of the other team’s offense, which should open a door of opportunity for both Webb and Johnson. And while Webb hasn’t been spectacular this season, he has performed better than Johnson of late. The Kentucky run defense has been a bit suspect lately as well. That should give Webb the edge, earning a desperate Vanderbilt team a hard-fought win at home to even the all-time series at 43-43-4.
Prediction: Vanderbilt 28, Kentucky 27
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.