Kentucky took on Alabama last Saturday knowing that only a miracle could make the game a Wildcat victory. While the miracle didn’t arrive, Kentucky played better than expected in a 34-6 loss, frustrating what was reported as a huge number of gamblers who had placed money on Bama to cover a 35½ point spread. The Wildcat defense had moments of great effectiveness, and kept Alabama from breaking their spirit as Florida had done in the Swamp. Kentucky also seemed to emerge from Tuscaloosa more or less healthy, which is pivotal going into this weekend’s matchup (SEC Network, 4 p.m. ET) with the Vanderbilt Commodores.
Time out of mind, Kentucky and Vandy have been locked in a death match for the SEC East’s weakest link. This game plays out as a bowl elimination matchup—not that the Wildcats’ pass is smooth even if they win. But any shot at winning six games requires a win against Vandy. Derek Mason and Mark Stoops are also a pair of rather embittered coaches who are trying to make sure they’re employed for 2017—which again, may go back to this game.
WHERE WE ARE Kentucky was clearly bested by Alabama, which is not exactly something to be ashamed of. QB Stephen Johnson was harassed from the outset and had two costly fumbles, one of which Bama returned for a score. The UK running game worked up the occasional first down, but was held in check by Alabama. The Tide amassed 488 yards of total offense on UK, but generally were less effective than usual. UK even sacked QB Jalen Hurts twice and recovered an early fumble deep in Alabama territory which gave the offense a short-lived chance to forge a 10-0 lead.
Kentucky has to keep doing the things it can do. Drew Barker is not expected back, so Johnson and a dose of the ground game are pivotal this week, as it tackling in the run game.
WHO THEY ARE Vanderbilt was edged by Florida 13-6 last week. The Commodores have a stout defense led by linebacker Zach Cunningham, who leads the SEC in tackles. Offensively, the show is running back Ralph Webb, who leads the conference in rushing with 582 yards on the ground. Vandy quarterback Kyle Shurmur was injured against Florida, but is expected to be available Saturday. Both Shurmur and backup Wade Freebeck have had disappointing seasons in which they have struggled to produce anything positive in the air.
Vandy’s defensive stats are solid, but they haven’t made a total of big plays, ranking last in the SEC with five sacks and also having just three interceptions in their first five games.
Vandy is 2-3, with both wins over C-USA opponents. In three games against Power Five opponents, Vandy has scored 10, 7, and 6 points. Of course, they allowed just 13 points in two of those games as well. This game looks unlikely to turn into a shootout.
WHAT TO EXPECT See the South Carolina game and maybe turn it down a notch. This game has a fair chance to be a 7-3, 10-7, 14-10 type of game. Of course, if Webb and Boom Williams start trading big runs, maybe there will be some points on the board. Both teams are fairly limited in the passing game, and so getting ahead will be doubly important in this matchup.
Some have pointed out that when Kentucky is faring well in the SEC, it does so at the expense of Vandy and Mississippi State. Over the next two games, Kentucky will get home matchups with each, and can see whether it’s ready to compete in the SEC, or whether this is a 3-9 type of season which would likely cost Mark Stoops his job. The guess here is more of the former than the latter.
Kentucky 21, Vanderbilt 10
AROUND THE CONFERENCE My current power rankings. 1. Alabama (5-0) 2. Texas A&M (5-0) 3. Tennessee (5-0) 4. Arkansas (4-1) 5. LSU (3-2) 6. Ole Miss (3-2) 7. Florida (4-1) 8. Georgia (3-2) 9. Auburn (3-2) 10. Mississippi State (2-2) 11. Missouri (2-3) 12. Kentucky (2-3) 13. South Carolina (2-3) 14. Vanderbilt (2-3)
By expecting LSU to implode, I took a 7-1 week, which moves me to 40-12 for the year. This time around, here’s to a perfect week:
LSU 24, Florida 21 Mississippi State 29, Auburn 28 Tennessee 36, Texas A&M 35 Kentucky 21, Vandy 10 Alabama 42, Arkansas 24 Georgia 31, South Carolina 14
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written five books, with his most recent, Almost Perfect, to be released in February 2017. Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.