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If you don't think James Franklin has had a measurable impact in Nashville this year, consider this; Vanderbilt is a 13 point favorite to win a SEC game.
A 13 point home favorite is the occasional product of Auburn's basketball team coming to Memorial Gym, not a program in the NCAA's elite football conference coming to Dudley Field. To be a two-possession favorite in a conference game is almost unheard of at Vanderbilt. Can anyone remember another time when this happened?
Part of these surprising odds is Vandy's opponent. Kentucky is a much weaker team than their 4-5 record suggests. Their four wins have come over a I-AA school (Jacksonville State), a school that recently transitioned from I-AA (Western Kentucky), a directional Michigan school in a down year (Central Michigan), and an Ole Miss squad that Vanderbilt thumped 30-7.
In fact, that UK loss was the final straw for Rebel coach Houston Nutt. The school announced that he won't be back on the sidelines in Oxford for the 2012 season after the Wildcats stomped Mississippi 30-13.
Only one of Kentucky's losses has come by fewer than two possessions. The 'Cats dropped a rivalry game to Louisville in the third week of the season - the Cardinals' only FBS win through the first six weeks of the season. So no, things have not gone well for Kentucky football in 2011.
However, Vanderbilt can't afford to take the Wildcats lightly. They showed last week that they can play fired up football and take advantage of an underprepared opponent. The addition of Maxwell Smith at quarterback will make them even more dangerous. Smith throws a high volume of passes but puts up strong yardage through the air. He gained 283 yards passing on 36 attempts last week, scoring two touchdowns in the upset win.
That's not the only reason why last week's Ole Miss win makes UK dangerous in Nashville. That victory put the 'Cats at 4-5 on the season - two wins from bowl eligibility. Vandy, Georgia, and Tennessee remain on the schedule. Coach Joker Phillips knows what this game means to his squad's postseason hopes. It's unlikely that his Wildcats can run the table against UT and UGA, but toppling one of those two is a definite possibility. If Kentucky wants a shot at keeping their BBVA Compass Bowl dream alive, they'll have to win at Vanderbilt's home finale this Saturday.
Vanderbilt will have to address this Kentucky matchup with the fire that they had mustered for the past two games against Arkansas and Florida to earn the win. The Wildcats haven't been very good this season, but with a new quarterback at the helm they rallied for an upset victory last weekend against Ole Miss. If Vandy isn't careful, they could be Joker Phillips's next victim.
Staff predictions are after the jump...
Train Island: Vanderbilt should win this game and post their second SEC victory of the season - but that's no guarantee. Kentucky outran Ole Miss last weekend to lift themselves out of the SEC basement and ahead of the Commodores in the SEC East standings. That's a great accomplishment for Phillips's squad, but it's got to piss James Franklin off to no end. The Wildcats, with exactly one win over a BCS conference opponent, have a technical lead in the East over the Commodores, who have three?
The team can rectify this on Saturday, and hopefully Franklin and his crew have the 'Dores fired up for just that reason. In those standings, Kentucky is every bit as good as Vanderbilt. They've got a 4-5 record and one SEC win over Ole Miss. On Saturday, the team will have the chance to show that they're a level above a Wildcat team that played a sloppy dogfight against Western Kentucky to open the season.
UK will be putting the ball in true freshman Maxwell Smith's hands and letting him throw all day. Smith has seen significant action in the past two games, including a start in last week's affair with Ole Miss. In those games, he's dropped back to pass a total of 73 times - completing 45 of those and eating four sacks. For comparison, Jordan Rodgers has dropped back 59 times in the last two games while operating Vanderbilt's new pass-heavy attack.
As a result, Casey Hayward and company will have their work cut out for them. Vandy's secondary hasn't been able to keep up the torrid pace that they set early in the season. In fact, they've gone from underrated to overrated in the course of the season. SEC quarterbacks have been successful in picking them apart as the season has worn on. The 'Dores haven't recorded an interception since their showdown with Georgia. They'll have to reverse that tide in order to keep UK off the board on Saturday.
Defensively, the Wildcats have shown vulnerability to strong rushing attacks. They currently allow nearly 200 yards per game to opposing teams and are giving up 4.9 yards per carry this season. Former Georgia tailback Washaun Ealey cut them up for 120 yards on 16 carries behind a weak Jacksonville State offensive line. South Carolina hung 288 rushing yards on them. Florida gained 405 on the ground in a rout.
This should mean good things for Zac Stacy as he inches closer to a 1,000 yard rushing season. If he can carve through Kentucky's defensive line, he's got the strength and agility to break plays open in that second level. His success will play a large role in opening up the passing game for Jordan Rodgers.
Of course, Rodgers has shown time after time that he's able to stretch the field and create openings across the offense. If he can continue the rapport he's built with Jordan Matthews (15 catches, 321 yards the past two games), then the 'Dores will have the firepower to overpower Phillips's Wildcat squad. If not, prepare for a dogfight in the trenches.
TI's Pick: Vanderbilt 27, Kentucky 17
TI's SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Mississippi over Louisiana Tech. Yes, things have gotten so bad in Oxford that this would actually be considered an upset. The Bulldogs are a two-point favorite on the road against the Rebels. However, Houston Nutt is not a predictable talent, and no one will ever question his ability to win games that have absolutely no bearing on him or his team. The Rebels take this through sheer Nutt unpredictability.