The Vanderbilt Commodores and Kentucky Wildcats have combined for a 1-4 SEC record thus far in the season. Saturday that win total will be doubled as these two teams get together for their annual divisional matchup.
Vanderbilt continued its up-and-down season with an ugly, albeit close, 13-6 loss to Florida last weekend. The offense once again showed it had very little outside of running back Ralph Webb and some very questionable coaching decisions have Derek Mason struggling for explanations in what has become a common occurrence during postgame press conferences.
Kentucky comes in after a predictable, 34-6 loss to No. 1 Alabama. The Wildcats took an early lead on a field goal but the Crimson Tide quickly tied it up and then never looked back. Kentucky will likely need to pull off an upset or two to reach a bowl game and a loss to Vanderbilt this weekend would make those prospects incredibly slim.
The all-time record sits at an even 42-42-4, helped largely by an 11-game stretch at the beginning of the rivalry where Kentucky was unable to score a single point. The Wildcats didn’t notch their first win against Vanderbilt until the 18th game and recent history hasn’t been much better, with the Commodores taking four out of the last five.
Vanderbilt at Kentucky
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 8 at 4 p.m. ET
TV Channel: SEC Network
Spread: Kentucky -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Running Backs
One of the bright spots of this matchup is the battle between the teams’ running backs. Ralph Webb and Stanley “Boom” Williams are both in the top five in the SEC in rushing yards and each is relied upon to move the chains for his offense.
Webb leads the conference with 582 rushing yards through five games while averaging nearly five yards per carry. Webb finished just shy of former Commodore Zac Stacy’s single-season rushing record last year and is on pace to surpass Stacy as the program’s all-time leading rusher. Despite the fact that teams constantly stack the box against the Commodores, Webb manages to fight for extra yards and is largely responsible for giving Vanderbilt scoring chances, even if it ends with a field goal. He lacks the explosiveness to take plays to the house but he is effective between the tackles, and has shown an ability to take a pounding and still pick up positive yards.
Williams, also known as “Boom,” currently sits fifth in the league in rushing and is just as critical to Kentucky’s offensive production. Among all SEC rushers with at least 60 carries, Williams is the most efficient, averaging an impressive 7.3 yards per carry. Vanderbilt has a solid run defense but should have its hands full trying to slow down Williams, who has gone over 100 rushing yards twice this season.
2. Stoppable Force vs. Movable Object
While each team has a premier running back, the overall offenses can best be described as “sputtering,” with Vanderbilt and Kentucky ranking in the bottom four of the SEC in both yards and points per game. This is largely due to the ineptitude of the passing games, which also rank among the SEC’s worst.
Vanderbilt’s Kyle Shurmur has the worst QB rating of any SEC starting quarterback. He is completing a little more than half of his throws (51.5 percent) and is averaging an SEC-low 5.4 yards per pass attempt. Stephen Johnson, who took over for an injured Drew Barker during the New Mexico State game three weeks ago, has a completion rate of 63 percent with three touchdowns and just one interception. Last week against Alabama, Johnson was just 13 of 22 and averaged a mere four yards per attempt. Then again, that was the defending national champions who are a top-10 defense nationally once again.
It will be interesting to see if either quarterback’s fortune improves against defenses that rank near the bottom of the conference. The Commodores enter with the better statistics on that side of the ball, but have struggled against the pass (248.6 ypg, 12th in SEC) and have recorded a total of five sacks in five games (fewest in SEC). Kentucky has fared even worse against the pass, ranking last in the SEC at 269.4 yards per game, an average that puts them 102nd in the FBS. Either the quarterbacks or the defenses will build some confidence by the time this game is over, although everyone involved could use some.
With two teams that struggle to score points, punts will be very prevalent in this game. Freshman Sam Loy has been a strong performer for the Commodores, averaging 42.6 yards per punt. Fellow freshman Grant McKinniss is right behind him for Kentucky with a 41.8-yard average. Look for each team’s special teams units to force bad field position and make Webb and Williams truly work to put their team in a good spot on the field.
As is the case with most Vanderbilt football games the past few years, this won’t be an exciting one to watch. With punts galore and very few red zone chances, this game could very easily finish with a combined score of fewer than 20 points. If Derek Mason makes similarly disastrous coaching decision to the ones he’s made in prior weeks, fans will surely be letting him hear it during the home game against Tennessee State the next weekend. He will have to be more aggressive in this game or else Kentucky QB Stephen Johnson and RB Stanley “Boom” Williams could take a late lead that ends up being insurmountable for the Commodores. Expect a heavy dose of running back Ralph Webb and enough of a ground attack to power the Commodores to their first road SEC win under Mason.