The question this week for the Commodores isn't so much "can they win" as much as it is "can they avoid another blowout loss." Yes, things have gotten pretty bleak for the Vanderbilt football team, as they followed up a three week stretch where they were outscored by an average of 38-7 with a 55-14 drubbing at the hands of Florida. Worse yet, their only offensive points came in garbage time - a Jared Funk touchdown pass with 39 seconds left on the clock. To call last week's results "encouraging" would be like calling the Titanic's maiden voyage "an unqualified success."
Vanderbilt will face their last potential bowl team of the season this week in Lexington against Kentucky. The Wildcats have gone 5-5 this season but many of their wins are against non-conference cream puffs. Last week, the team beat up on FCS Charleston Southern (0-5 in FCS play) and they've also notched wins over Akron (0-10 playing out of the MAC), Western Kentucky (1-8 playing out of the Sun Belt), and Louisville (a surprising 5-4 in the Big East). However, the 'Cats do have a solid win over Stephen Garcia and his band of mutants at South Carolina.
Despite the padded record, this is a pretty good team. Kentucky has only been truly blown out once - by Florida - and has been competitive in tough losses to Auburn, Mississippi State, and Mississippi. They've also got a few impact players on offense in quarterback Mike Hartline and receivers Randall Cobb and Chris Matthews. If you're keeping count, that's three more than the 'Dores have and also the exact number of talented running backs currently injured for Vandy.
Kentucky is currently 22nd in the country in scoring offense, and has only been held to under 20 points or less twice on the season - both losses. Conversely, the Commodores haven't scored more than two touchdowns in their past four games, and are averaging just 11 points per game in the SEC. The winner of this game gets the fast track on finishing fourth in the SEC East, which would normally be sort of an accomplishment if this division weren't so awful this year. For the record, the 'Dores have finished fourth or higher just twice since 2005.
Prognostications, ruminations, and flat-out lies, after the jump.
Train Island - Well, at the very least we'll get to see what Kennard Reeves gets to do. The diminutive senior will get the start at tailback thanks to the injuries of Warren Norman, Zac Stacy, and Wesley Tate. Rumor has it that Jared Hawkins suffered a sympathy concussion in honor of his fallen brethren following the Florida loss as well.
Since Vanderbilt has little chance of winning a shootout against these guys, the defense is going to have to come up huge. Mississippi State may have laid out the blueprint when they used three interceptions to top the 'Cats 24-17. While Randall Cobb got his yards (a likely concession for the 'Dores, even if Casey Hayward is covering him), the Bulldogs did a nice job of limiting the rest of UK's attack. However, Vandy has only forced three turnovers in their last four games and the defense has had the structural integrity of a house of cards recently.
Even if the defense can rebound and make some plays against a gunslinging offense, there's still the legitimate question of where their points will come from. The 'Dores will be starting a part-time third down player at tailback and likely turning to a revolving selection of quarterbacks in hopes that someone can jumpstart the scoring attack. Can Larry Smith bounce back from a game where he somehow accounted for just 16 total yards? Will Jared Funk finally adjust to the college game and keep his passes out of the hands of defenders? Is there any chance that we'll see Jordan Rodgers, Charlie Goro, or even Matt Casas take some snaps?
Almost everything we've seen in the past month suggests a high-scoring blowout, even against a relatively mediocre team like Kentucky. The Wildcats problems are on defense, not offense, and that's a terrible combination for the Commodores. Still, for some strange reason, this feels like the type of game that they could pull out. The defense is due for a big outing and maybe the lack of rushing talent will create a gameplan of short passes that Larry Smith can actually pull off. But is it asking too much for these guys to put up 28 points - the likely amount it would take to win against UK's offense?
My gut wants to pick the 'Dores very badly. Something tells me that they can win this one - that this is the type of game, on the road, against a better team, that they somehow end up pulling out. Still, I can't ignore the last month's results, or the fact that our running game looks like something out of The Walking Dead right now.
Prediction?: Kentucky 34, Vanderbilt 20. And that 20 might even be a little optimistic.
KingJamesIV - If I'm honest, it's a little tough to get excited for a VU-UK football game with basketball season just starting, me brimming with confidence about our chances and potential. It's like being in the middle of a phenomenal dream only to wake up to Freddy Krueger slicing up your intestines or to be having this awesome day and then you start to doze off and then bam Freddy Krueger is slicing up your intestines. It's just a matter of perspective how Freddy Krueger is slicing up your intestines. That's what VU Football is like right now.
If ever there was a time to point out just how depth affects a team like Vanderbilt, this is it. Offensive line. Running back. Etc. The coaching staff has done a great job of building up the level of talent, though outside the starters it just isn't there.
We are the walking wounded. Linebackers are moving over to running back at an alarming rate (read: that it is actually happening is alarming, it should be the other way around IF ANYTHING). At the very least, we still have our kickers (or at least our punter, who is challenging NCAA single season quantity records at this point).
Frankly, I'm just not certain having CBJ for one last go round would have made any difference at all.
Fully healthy, I think this team would have an excellent shot at knocking off Kentucky, who's hanging around the Ole Miss level of the SEC Power Poll.
If I'm utterly full of it, we win this one by 13.
Prediction?: Kentucky 14, VU 27. In the pregame, Chris Marve challenges a live big cat of whichever variety to the death. After showing the wild beast its own still beating heart, he leads a spirited Vanderbilt defense. 12 safeties and a figgie for the Commodores are enough to secure the W.