Kentucky enters this week's game against Vanderbilt in somewhat unfamiliar territory. The Wildcats are 5-1 overall and 3-1 in SEC play. They are trying to keep pace with Florida and Georgia, who are both 4-1 in conference action. The Commodores are at the tipping point of their season, sitting at 3-4 overall. They’ll need to go at least 3-2 the rest of the way to make it to a bowl game.
Vanderbilt should be motivated as the Commodores have played much better football against their SEC rivals Georgia and Florida recently. They took a 21-3 lead on the Gators in the first half before letting them off the hook in the second half. If you couple those two games with the near-miss at Notre Dame earlier this season it is proof that when they want to, Vanderbilt can play with just about anybody.
Kentucky enters the game as an actual ranked team. After their upset of Mississippi State three games ago, the Big Blue entered the national rankings for the first time since 2007. That’s 11 years of anonymity. The Cats have maintained their spot in the polls despite coming off a 20-14 loss at Texas A&M. But they will have the advantage of having a week off to rest and recoup while the Commodores were in a knock-down, drag-out with Florida. So look for the Wildcats to have the fresher legs, which could become a big factor as the game goes on.
Vanderbilt at Kentucky
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 20 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Kentucky -11
Three Things to Watch
1. Establish early confidence
If Vanderbilt is going to have any chance at pulling a stunner here, they’re going to have to follow the lead of their game vs. Florida last week. After their first three-and-out, the Commodores looked like a different team. Ke’Shawn Vaughn ran with authority, top target Kalija Lipscomb stepped up and Kyle Shurmur got into a groove with the tempo offense. They scored touchdowns on three of their next four series to jump out to a 21-3 lead. They’ll need that kind of start to have a chance vs. Kentucky here because the Wildcats have outscored their opponents 31-6 in the opening quarter.
2. First and second down
Vanderbilt only converts on 34 percent of its third down plays and is dead last in the SEC and 124th nationally in red zone offense, scoring TDs just 52 percent of the time. So obviously, staying in manageable down-and-distance scenarios is going to be amplified here. The Commodores will have to be able to run well on first and second down and mix things up with the pass, utilizing their short game, to keep the Wildcats off-balance. Keep an eye on Vaughn, who was tearing up the Gator defense before an injury sidelined him in the second quarter. He is expected to play this week and needs to be just as explosive as he was last week for VU to have a chance. He had seven touches for 132 total yards before sitting the second half, which was where the Dores' offense bogged down.
3. Benny and his jets
Oh man, Benny Snell Jr. has to be licking his chops. Last week, the Gators rushed for 201 yards in the second half alone to help salt away the win over Vanderbilt. In fact, the Commodores have the second-to-worst run defense in the SEC. Enter Mr. Snell, the Heisman candidate. He has run for 699 yards so far this season and would love a game like this where he can pad his stats. The depth of the Vanderbilt defense is not top-quality. Late-game meltdowns vs. their SEC East opponents have shown that this team starts to lose its moxie on defense as the game goes on. Against South Carolina, Georgia and Florida the Commodores have been outscored 61-13 in the second half. And Snell seems like one of those backs that gets stronger as the game goes on.
The two biggest things that keep sticking out are the fact that Kentucky comes in better rested with a week off before this game and how Vanderbilt has had a series of second- half meltdowns. With Vanderbilt playing a tough Florida team last week and having to go on the road this week, it should bode well for a Kentucky victory. Although they may show some early-game rust, don’t expect the Commodores to go quietly.
But in the end, Joe B. Hall University will still come out unscathed and ready for the second half of the season.
Prediction: Kentucky 34, Vanderbilt 17
— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.