Since the Southeastern Conference expanded to a dozen teams and divisional play in 1992, only three teams have failed to make an appearance in the SEC championship game in football — Ole Miss, Kentucky and Vanderbilt. Having suffered a tough home loss to the Rebels last week, Kentucky travels to Vanderbilt Saturday looking to avoid being swept by its brethren in the land of no division titles.
This is the rub for Kentucky football. Clinching a second straight bowl appearance by November is a plus. Having four opportunities to clinch the first back-to-back winning seasons since 2008 and 2009 is a plus. Having two opportunities to reach .500 in SEC play for consecutive seasons for the first time since 1998 and 1999. Furthermore, a win over Vandy would leave Kentucky three more chances to secure an eight-win for the first time since 1984.
But there has been something downright flukish about this season for Kentucky. Twice the Wildcats snatched defeats from the jaws of victory and they lived dangerously and escaped in other games. In order to sell real progress to the Big Blue Nation, Mark Stoops has to hold his own against Vanderbilt. Two years ago, Kentucky suffered a devastating loss at Vandy that ended up keeping UK out of a bowl. A loss Saturday wouldn’t keep the Wildcats out of a bowl, but it would open up a real possibility of a 6-2 start becoming a 6-6 season, which would certainly take the luster off of any list of “first since” occurrences. The best way around it would be to win Saturday, and leave the future as a place of promise instead of potential pain.
Who Vandy Is
The Commodores aren’t exactly chopped liver, but apart from a couple of seasons under current Penn State boss James Franklin, Vandy hasn’t exactly been the most formidable of opponents. Vandy is 4-5 on the season, which included a trio of season-opening wins, including an upset of then-top 20 Kansas State. After starting 3-0, the ‘Dores dropped five in a row before last week’s 31-17 win over Western Kentucky in Nashville.
Senior running back Ralph Webb is the program’s all-time leading rusher, but he has just 543 yards and 3.9 yards per carry this season. As a team, Vandy’s 103.2 rushing yards per game is a league low. The Commodores picked up the slack with QB Kyle Shurmur, who has passed for 1,884 yards, 20 touchdowns, and only three interceptions. Big play receivers Trent Sherfield, Kalija Lipscomb, and C.J. Duncan could provide a throwback to last week’s Ole Miss game at times.
Defensively, Vandy’s Charles Wright is one of the top pass rushers in the conference, with eight sacks on the season. Cornerback Tre Herndon has broken up nine passes. The Commodores have allowed 211.6 yards and 5.1 yards per carry on the ground, and have given up 18 touchdowns and recorded six interceptions.
Where Kentucky Is
Sophomore running back Benny Snell has been explosive, and is just 103 rushing yards from back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons, which has never happened in the history of UK’s program. Additionally, his next rushing score will tie Kentucky's career running TD record. QB Stephen Johnson seems to be holding up well despite some late-season nicks and bruises.
Defensively, UK’s pass coverage is beleaguered. The Wildcats have allowed just under 280 yards per game in the air. After the resurrection performed by Mark Stoops on Kentucky's run early last season, he may need to do a similar job on the team’s pass coverage.
Vanderbilt is a mild favorite in the game, but there’s no reason to think the Commodores can suddenly play winning SEC football. Kentucky’s three league victories haven’t always been pretty, but when the chips are down, this game will stand as a progress marker. Plenty of Kentucky teams (2015 included) lost this game. It says here that Stephen Johnson answers the bell late one more time, and 2017 Kentucky doesn’t lose.
UK 29, Vanderbilt 28
Who else do I like Saturday? Glad you asked.
LSU 41, Arkansas 20
Ole Miss 42, Louisiana 17
South Carolina 28, Florida 14
Georgia 31, Auburn 21
Texas A&M 28, New Mexico 10
Missouri 31, Tennessee 28
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written five books. His most recent, Almost Perfect (a study of baseball pitchers’ near-miss attempts at perfect games) is available on Amazon or at many local bookstores. Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.