Vanderbilt will be looking for their fifth win of the season on Saturday against Kentucky, but a Wildcat team with nothing to lose will try to climb out of the bottom of the SEC standings against one of the few team's they've been able to consistently beat over the past two decades.
Kentucky (1-7 overall, 0-6 SEC) has had a rough road in 2012. The Wildcats had been predicted to finish near the bottom of the conference, but few could have predicted the bottom falling out as badly as it has this autumn. Joker Phillips's team has had to overcome injuries at several key positions - including quarterback, tailback, and safety - and been forced to insert underprepared underclassmen throughout the Wildcat lineup. The results have been dismal at times; UK is giving up over 35 points per game in conference play while scoring only 12 points in those contests.
The Commodores will have the edge talent-wise, but Vanderbilt has yet to put together a performance where everything clicks. The team engaged in an early slopfest against Auburn two weeks ago where gadget plays and unnecessary risks nearly cost them a win. It was a similar story early on in last week's game against overmatched UMass. The 'Dores have the talent to compete against the SEC's lower-level teams through traditional, grind-em-out football. Unfortunately, James Franklin's dependence on trickery and risk-taking have made their wins this season a bit more ulcer-inducing than season ticket holders would like.
Can Vanderbilt ride their advantages to a second-straight win over Kentucky? Or will a charged-up Wildcat team give Joker Phillips something to build from for the final quarter of the season? The Commodores were a seven-point favorite in the oddsmakers' books when the week started, but that line has dropped to six points in some places as Saturday draws closer. Is that a case of bettors taking the home team over a Vandy squad that hasn't really made their mark in 2012? Or is there more at stake here?
To examine this weekend's matchup further, let's turn to the weekly predictions:
Christian D'Andrea: Kentucky isn't a good team, but they certainly have the talent to beat Vanderbilt if the breaks go their way. The Commodores will have to stop the UK running game in order to force a cadre of inexperienced quarterbacks to throw the ball if they want to outlast the Wildcats on Saturday. Vandy is the favorite here for a reason, but if this team plays without confidence like they did against Auburn then they'll be ripe for a road upset.
UK's biggest weakness is a defense that has allowed over 35 points per contest against SEC teams. Unfortunately, Vanderbilt hasn't shown the kind of offensive prowess that can exploit this. In five conference games, the Commodores have topped out at 19 points in their best showing. While they have the weapons to move the ball down the field, their execution has been lacking, at best.
Kentucky, on the other hand, has been feisty this season, albeit inconsistently. Jonathan George and Raymond Sanders proved that they can be effective on the ground, and the tailback duo were instrumental in UK's near-upset of Georgia just two weeks ago. The pair was able to alleviate the pressure on the Wildcat passing attack, and that led to their best offensive showing in SEC play this season.
Vandy will have to focus first and foremost on stopping that rush in order to limit Kentucky's chances. The 'Dores have yet to show that they can win in a shootout, and their two conference wins this season have come in slopfests. Fortunately, UK's lack of a passing game and two (or three)-headed quarterback rotation ensures that we'll see some mistakes on Saturday. The Vanderbilt defense has really stepped up lately, and they can provide the kind of pressure that drive offenses out of their comfort zone.
James Franklin's team has done a solid job of limiting tailbacks like Kendial Lawrence, Marcus Lattimore, and Mike Gillislee so far this season. They should be able to do the same against George and Sanders this weekend, and that would turn this into the kind of game that Vanderbilt has been very good at this season. It probably won't be pretty, but it will be a Vandy win.
The Prediction? Vanderbilt 20, Kentucky 13
SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Troy (+18) over TENNESSEE. Oh please oh please oh please... Actually, the Trojans may not have a great chance to win outright in Knoxville, but they'll have a good shot to cover a three-possession spread. Troy is just 4-4, but three of their four losses have come by a touchdown or less. That includes a 24-30 defeat at the hands of Mississippi State. The Volunteers should win this one, but I like Troy's chances to keep things close.