Vanderbilt will be a seven-point favorite this weekend in their quest to climb over .500 for the first time in 2012. Their opponent? A struggling Kentucky squad that has lost its last six games and is just 1-7 for the season. If the Commodores win, they'll be just one victory away from earning back-to-back bowl bids for the first time in school history. If the Wildcats pull the upset, they'll earn their first SEC win and give Joker Phillips some straws to grasp at in the quest to keep his head coaching job in Lexington.
Injuries have decimated a Kentucky team that had been predicted to fall towards the bottom of the league rankings even with a healthy roster. The Wildcats have had to employ four different quarterbacks in 2012 and have been gashed for over 35 points per game in SEC play so far. They've only kept one of those league losses within a one-possession margin, and that came at home against a very good Georgia team. Factor that in with a win over a strong looking Kent State team, and you can see the potential for an upset looming at Commonwealth Stadium.
To assess the chance of a Wildcat victory on Saturday, we turned to our friend Glenn Logan, formerly known as the one and only Truzenzuzex, who is the Editor-in-chief over at A Sea of Blue. Most of you are more familiar with Glenn's work during basketball season, but that doesn't mean that he's not an expert when it comes to Wildcat football. He had some outstanding responses to all the questions that I had to throw at him. Check out his answers below for a glimpse into Joker Phillips's nightmare season. For more of Glenn, be sure to visit A Sea of Blue.
1. The average outcome for a Kentucky football game this season is a 14 point loss. What's gone wrong this season? Is there any saving Joker Phillips now?
The main thing that's gone wrong is a rash of injuries to critical players. Maxwell Smith
, Josh Clemons
, CoShik Williams, Glenn Faulkner
-- all out. Our secondary is almost 100% true freshmen. We have a freshman quarterback. something like 61% of our healthy team members are freshmen and sophomores. You can't win in the SEC at the level Kentucky recruits at with that kind of team makeup.
I don't think Phillips can be saved. He's had some really bad luck at Kentucky, but at the end of the day, results matter. I look at it like this -- he had an opportunity to prove what a great coach he was by winning through adversity. It hasn't happened.
2. How did the Wildcats manage to thrash (47-14!) a Kent State team that otherwise has looked pretty good this season? Is there a chance that they can recapture that magic?
We beat Kent St. by having a healthy football team. Kentucky was still weak in the secondary and didn't do well against the run, but the offense under Smith and with Williams in the running back rotation was a threat to win most games. Keep in mind that was only the second game of the season, and by now, there's no telling how efficient that offense could be if Smith had been healthy.
3. With Maxwell Smith out, it looks like the Commodores will be facing a freshman Kentucky quarterback for the second straight year - although just who that is may still be up in the air. What do Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles do differently than Smith? How many passes will the coaching staff trust these struggling freshmen with? Will we see Morgan Newton round out a three-QB rotation on Saturday?
GL: Jalen Whitlow is a dual-threat QB. He was recruited as an athlete, which means his ultimate destination is probably a wide receiver or the slot with some time as the next wildcat QB. He is a talented player with a solid arm, but he's just too young and inexperienced to be running a BCS Division I offense.
Patrick Towles is more of a straight passing QB, a big boy with a big arm. He broke all kinds of records out at Highlands High School, but he's not ready to take over at UK just yet. With that said, he directed his first drive to a touchdown against Mississippi St., but then went down with a high ankle sprain the series immediately following. His first game back was last week, and he did not play well.
Morgan Newton may play. You never know. I have no idea. If the other guys do well, we won't see him, but if UK is behind and struggling, yes, they'll probably send him in.
4. Can Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George provide a strong enough running game to keep the pressure off of the Wildcat passing game and grind down a Commodore defense that has been solid against the rush in 2012?
GL: We dominated Georgia on the ground, so I'd say that's a qualified maybe. Georgia grades out very slightly better against the run than Vanderbilt does, so I think it's safe to say we're going to try to run the ball on Vandy quite a bit.
The question is, and it has been this all year since Smith went down, can we throw the ball to any real effect? When we get the ball to receivers, we do pretty well, but getting the ball to them has been a real problem without Smith at the helm. If it happens on Saturday, it will be the first time in a while.
Obviously, if we do throw the ball well, we are likely to run it well. Most teams that have stopped the run against Kentucky have simply stacked the box and dared us to throw. I expect that's what Vanderbilt will do as well.
5. SEC opponents are scoring over 35 points per game against the Wildcats. Who on the UK defense can step up against a Vanderbilt team that has struggled to score at times this season? Who can exploit a shaky Commodore offensive line and put pressure on Jordan Rodgers?
GL: You have struggled to score at times, but you have been able to move the football. Kentucky just hasn't been able to stop any SEC offenses in any particular for more than a half. Our run defense is simply unable to stop 3+ yard gains on first down, which winds up putting the Wildcats in the position of defending third and short all too often. In that role, they have not just struggled, but pretty much failed.
The secondary has not been as awful, but as young as it is, it tends to give up the big play. Our pass rush has been one of the bright spots in Kentucky's defensive play (arguably the only genuine bright spot), and if the Commodores do in fact have a shaky line, they will be in for some trouble. Collins Ukwu
, Taylor Windham and Bud Dupree have been giving opposing QB's trouble that have good lines in front of them, so a questionable line would be something I'd worry about if I were a Commodore fan.
6. With basketball season right around the corner and a traditionally lackluster matchup at Commonwealth Stadium, is there any buzz in Lexington for Vandy/UK? How will fan turnout be at the game on Saturday?
GL: Considering how much Vandy lost last year, there isn't that much buzz about them in basketball right now. Of course, if you can prove yourselves worthy early, there will be some. Vanderbilt has probably given UK as much trouble in basketball as anyone, and arguably more than anyone in the SEC, in the last three years.
Kentucky knows it will be good -- we have the horses. Florida will be good -- they have the talent. Tennessee should be good -- they have Maymon and Stokes. But Vandy has a bunch of role players from last year to go with some decent, but not scary, talent in Dai-Jon Parker, Rod Odom and Kendren Johnson. If they can play to the level of Jenkins, Ezeli, Walker and Taylor, then you'll definitely be good. That's got to be demonstrated, though. There isn't enough credibility yet among your current players to cause Wildcats fans any sleepless nights.
Fan turnout on Saturday will suck. Expect 50K or less. Plenty of seats available for random Commodore fans making last-minute decisions to drive up. At least the weather looks decent.
7. And finally, what's your prediction for Saturday's game?
GL: Kentucky probably loses a close one, 24-21. We've played well at home, comparatively speaking, but we have always found a way to lose convincingly. Youth, mistakes, bad play calls, what have you, it's always something. This is one of those seasons where even an optimist like me has to hold my nose and swallow the reality that this team has earned the right to suck hind tit in the SEC.