By Joe Cox
The bye week for UK football has passed peacefully. In some recent seasons, I found myself anxiously awaiting not watching UK get beaten mercilessly on the bye week. But Mark Stoops said early last week that he’d have rather been playing this time around, and I have to agree. For the first time since at least 2009, and maybe earlier than that, this Kentucky football team gives fans something to hope for, something to build on, and makes those dreams of warm-weather bowl games in January start to emerge from hiding.
Saturday will find Kentucky in an unusual position. As I write, UK is a 14.5-point favorite over Vanderbilt. The last time UK was a 14.5-point favorite in an SEC game was 2010, when UK was favored by 15 over lame-duck Vandy coach Robbie Caldwell’s Commodores. UK won 38-20, en route to the last ‘Cat bowl appearance in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
Make no mistake—this is as big of a game as UK will play all season. The ‘Cats’ current 17-game SEC losing streak ties their all-time record. Before UK can start thinking meaningfully about bowl games, it’s got to handle the weakest kid on the block, which once again is the Vanderbilt Commodores. It’s a young UK team, and they have a chance to send a message on Saturday afternoon—that this isn’t the UK football program of years past, but it’s a new team on a new day. History is written in the present, and Patrick Towles and company can write an important chapter on Saturday.
Since we don’t really have upsides and downsides from a bye week, here are a few things I’d like to see or that ‘Cat fans need to see on Saturday.
* The tight ends or running backs catching passes. Every year, we hear about a great UK tight end, and most years, they end up doing nothing. Through three games, the Wildcat TEs have three catches. That won’t cut it. And if they’re not going to step up, time to find Kemp, Heard, et al., out of the backfield and let them help the big-play guys like Timmons and Johnson.
* Another good game for Austin MacGinnis. The kid has shown the leg to hit two 50-yarders in a single season, which makes him one of only a handful of UK kickers to do so (the record is four 50-plus yarders by Doug Pelfrey in 1991). Now, he needs to have a week of making the shorter, easier kicks—cleanly, if possible.
* Quarterback rush from the front four. Za’Darius Smith stepped up in the Florida game. Would love to see Bud Dupree or Melvin Lewis or even Matt Elam join him this week.
WHERE ARE WE—SEC POWER RANKINGS
What a wild and wooly week in the SEC. Let’s try to make sense out of it.
1. Alabama (4-0). They were sloppy and then threw for almost 500 yards and made Florida look stupid. It’s weird to see an Alabama team that it so obviously a work in progress, but they stay No. 1 until somebody beats them.
2. Texas A&M (4-0). We still don’t really know anything about them. When they play Alabama, we’re going to learn a lot about two teams. Man, Kenny Hill is fun to watch.
3. Auburn (3-0). Didn’t play very well in beating Kansas State. I don’t think they’ve got the horses to keep up with A&M, much less Alabama. They may not have the horses to keep up with Mississippi State or LSU either, but we’ll see.
4. Mississippi State (4-0). So much for my “They’d be good in the East” thing. They won in Baton Rouge, in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score. They’re good now. Dan Mullen will take another job next year, maybe in Gainesville.
5. Georgia (2-1). They played a terrible team and beat them badly. Playing in the SEC East, that’s probably how their season at large will go from here.
6. Ole Miss (3-0) On a bye this week. They are now where Mississippi State was for me. I know they’re a good team, but they have to show that they can do something in the juggernaut of the SEC West.
7. LSU (3-1). They had no QB. I did tell you that. That said, I liked the Harris kid they turned to… and who knows what ends up happening in the West?
8. Missouri (3-1). Good teams don’t lose to Indiana at home. So Missouri is not a good team. But they’ll probably muddle around in the middle of the SEC East.
9. South Carolina (3-1). Did nothing to change my mind of having no clue about them. Made Vandy look much better than they have all season, but made enough plays to win.
10. Florida (2-1). Their game with Tennessee is starting to look like the “Keep Your Job” Bowl for Will Muschamp. Outclassed in all areas by ‘Bama.
11. Arkansas (3-1). Put them in the East and I’ll make them either #7 or #8 today. But I think that competition catches up with them over the next couple of weeks.
12. Kentucky (2-1). Can the ‘Cats handle being a favorite?
13. Tennessee (2-1). If you told me they were really No. 8 (in SEC), I wouldn’t argue. This league really divides very neatly right now between the teams that are really good (and will win, say, nine games at a minimum) and the teams that are okay (and will win somewhere between four and eight games). UT is one of the second group.
14. Vanderbilt (1-3). Played 2,000% better than at any other time this season. They’re still terrible.
WHERE ARE WE GOING
Vanderbilt is a team without an identity. They’ve been doubled up in scoring in four games of Temple, Ole Miss, UMass, and South Carolina, they’re being outgained by 140 yards per game, and they’re minus 6 on turnovers.
Ralph Webb is a good running back (378 yards in four games), but Vandy averages just 3.8 yards per carry and has scored only 2 touchdowns on the ground all year. Vandy has played four QBs, and will apparently go with Wade Freebeck. All four have combined for sub-50% passing and have twice as many interceptions as touchdown passes. Kick returner Darrius Sims returned two kicks for touchdowns against South Carolina, but he’s a rare threat for Vandy.
On defense, Caleb Azubuike has four of Vandy’s eight sacks on the season, so he can get into the backfield. Vandy has no interceptions in four games, which doesn’t bode well for a young secondary. Vandy is still more athletic than I remember them being in the past, but they’re young, thin at most positions, and just not very darn good. UK 38, Vandy 14.
MY OTHER (COMPLETELY CLUELESS) SEC PREDICTIONS
I misfired on Indiana over Missouri and on the Mississippi State upset, so a 6-2 week drops me to 27-3 for the season. I’ll take 90% though! My best call was Texas A&M over SMU 56-3. The final was 58-6. On the other hand, I had LSU by two touchdowns. That Mississippi State offense is better than people think—me included.
Week 5 Predictions:
Georgia 34, Tennessee 20
Kentucky 38, Vanderbilt 14
Texas A&M 42, Arkansas 31
Auburn 37, Louisiana Tech 10
South Carolina 38, Missouri 24
LSU 44, New Mexico State 3
Ole Miss 42, Memphis 17