Where does Vanderbilt’s football season go from here? After a brutal three-game gauntlet against top 10 teams, this was supposed to be the “winnable” portion of the SEC schedule where the Commodores would finally break the losing streak. The Commodores had their second bye week after missing a golden opportunity to beat Missouri, giving them extra time to prepare for South Carolina. Unfortunately, the Gamecocks looked like the team coming off a bye, as Vandy looked completely unprepared with four turnovers while falling victim to gadget plays in a 38-27 loss that was never in doubt. The remainder of the season will be more challenging, starting with a trip to Lexington Saturday for an 11:00 kickoff against Kentucky.
Kentucky’s offense averages 23.6 points per game which rank 97th in the nation, and their 341.4 yards per game rank last in the SEC. Those numbers look unimpressive, and they are, but their offense has had a tale of two seasons around a pivotal injury to star quarterback Will Levis. Levis – who is mocked as one of the top quarterbacks (and the best by some) in the upcoming NFL draft – sustained an injury in the Wildcats’ fifth game, a heartbreaking loss to Ole Miss. Before his injury, Kentucky had won their first four games and was ranked as high as 7th in the AP poll. In this four-game stretch to open the season, Kentucky averaged 31.2 points, with Levis passing for an average of 296.2 yards per game. Since losing to Ole Miss, the Wildcats have averaged just 17.4 points. In Levis’ four games after his injury, he has passed for just 172.7 yards per game. For the season, he has 1903 passing yards at a 68% completion rate with 16 touchdowns to 8 interceptions.
In Levis’ defense, he hasn’t been helped much by an offensive line that has been porous most of the season, ranking almost last in the nation (128 out of 131) in sacks allowed and 115th in tackles for loss. His top receiving targets include Virginia Tech transfer Tayvion Robinson, with 30 receptions for 421 yards and 3 touchdowns, and freshman Barion Brown (from nearby Pearl Cohn) with 30 receptions for 416 yards and 2 touchdowns. Kentucky also has an outstanding running back in Chris Rodriguez Jr. who has rushed for 571 yards on 116 attempts (4.9 per carry) with 4 rushing touchdowns. He has shown this season he can take over a game, beating Mississippi State almost single-handedly with 197 rushing yards.
Kentucky has a formidable defense that only gives up 19.6 points per game, which ranks 21st in the nation. They are led by versatile linebacker J.J. Weaver who is good at coverage as well as rushing the passer. Talented linebacker DeAndre Square, who leads the team with 55 tackles, missed their last game against Missouri with an injury but is eyeing his return against the Commodores. The secondary is highlighted by cornerback Carrington Valentine, who is tied for 2nd on the team with 24 solo tackles, along with an interception and a sack.
On the Vandy side, unfortunately, the morale for Commodore Nation is at a low point for the year. Not only has Vandy lost five games in a row, but freshman quarterback AJ Swann was knocked out of the South Carolina game with an injury – for the second consecutive game. Vanderbilt Coach Clark Lea has already ruled him out against Kentucky, but not for the rest of the season. Mike Wright returns to take the reins and I assume Ken Seals, an afterthought who has yet to take a snap this season, will back him up. When Vandy’s SEC worst defense matches up with Kentucky’s SEC worst offense, something will have to give.
A somewhat interesting perspective of this game from a Vandy perspective centers around Kentucky’s coach, Mark Stoops. He is exactly the coach Commodore Nation is hoping Clark Lea will turn out to be. It wasn’t that long ago that Kentucky was at the bottom of the SEC, where Vandy is now. They were 2-10, and 0-8 in the SEC the year before Stoops came. In Stoops’ first season, they were once again 2-10, 0-8 in the conference. See a correlation? Gradually Kentucky won 5 games, then 7, even winning 10 games twice. Now he has built Kentucky into a program that will go to their seventh consecutive bowl game this season (they’ve won their last four). At Vandy, that kind of success would get a statue built for the coach (hyperbole, since we know Vanderbilt is too cheap to actually pay for a statue). Any rational fan knows Vanderbilt will never compete for SEC championships and playoff berths, but what Stoops has done at Kentucky seems like a realistic ceiling for Lea.
But unfortunately, it’s only Lea’s second season – and the gap between his program and Kentucky’s is still significant. The Wildcats have won six in a row in the series and are a 17-point favorite to win this one. I suppose if you squint hard enough it’s not impossible to envision an avenue to a Vandy win. While Kentucky is clearly the superior team, as I mentioned before they are not as strong as they were earlier in the season. They have played opponents closely the last few weeks – their last four wins have all been 10 points or less — and if they let Vandy hang around the Commodores could steal a win with some breaks. I fully admit it’s a long shot, but that’s where we are now. I’m sure Kentucky is viewing this matchup as a “get-right” game, the same way struggling South Carolina viewed their game against Vandy – and the Commodores fully obliged in making Spencer Rattler look like a superstar. This is a pride game for Vandy, win or lose, I hope to see them battle to the end…