Vanderbilt can even up their all-time record against Kentucky with a win on Saturday, but Mark Stoops would like nothing more to prevent that with the first SEC win of his head coaching tenure.
While the Wildcats are assured of a losing season this year, they'll be playing for pride against a program that used to be their insulation from the conference's basement. Stoops has earned high marks for his incredible recruiting job in Lexington, but he has yet to deliver a win on which he can hang his hat. Beating Vanderbilt doesn't carry the luster of a win over Georgia or LSU or Alabama, but it would still be a win over a quality, likely bowl-bound SEC program.
Vanderbilt can clinch that bowl bid with a victory on Saturday, and despite James Franklin's one-week-at-a-time mantra, that sixth win is still looming over this game. The Commodores can extend their school record with a third straight postseason appearance, and they'll need one win in their next three games to get there. Tomorrow's home game against Kentucky may be their best opportunity to clinch eligibility.
It'd be foolish to overlook any SEC football program, but Kentucky hasn't had much success in 2013. Their two wins have come against winless Miami (OH) and 6-4 FCS program Alabama State. Despite a pair of close calls against South Carolina and Mississippi State, the Wildcats have averaged a 36.6-16.2 loss in conference play so far. As a result, Vandy will be a 12.5-point home favorite on Saturday.
Can the 'Dores live up to expectations and put Kentucky away to clinch bowl eligibility? Or will the Wildcats rally to a late season surge under Stoops and a cache of young talented players? Let's dig in for a closer look.
Christian D'Andrea: You know who loved playing Kentucky? Zac Stacy. Aside from this:
He also churned out an average of 102 yards and two touchdowns per game as an upperclassman for Vanderbilt against the 'Cats. That opened up the passing game for Jordan Rodgers, who turned in 200+ yard passing games in each of the team's two routs of UK.
That's a gameplan that Franklin and offensive coordinator John Donovan will be looking to replicate on Saturday. The 'Dores will have to establish the run early in order to take pressure off of Patton Robinette's shoulders and create opportunities for All-SEC wideout Jordan Matthews and the hopefully-healthy Jonathan Krause. That shouldn't be too difficult against a team that is allowing more than 200 yards per game - and five yards per carry - to opponents on the ground.
Jerron Seymour ground out three touchdowns but only 2.6 yards per carry against Florida last week. That number should rise against the 'Cats, and Seymour's ability to extend drives and create extra plays should prevent UK from focusing on Matthews and Krause. While Kentucky's solid defensive line play should be able to make Robinette uncomfortable in the pocket, he'll still have several opportunities to find his big play receivers downfield.
That's a recipe for success for a Vandy team that has scored 24 points or more in every game this season. They'll just need their defense to rise up like they did against Florida last week. The 'Dores gave up plenty of yardage in the Swamp, but they held tough in the red zone and forced long Gator drives to stall out without touchdowns. By shutting down Florida's running game, they forced an unsteady quarterback (Tyler Murphy) to beat them. When Murphy made mistakes, the Vandy D capitalized and came up with the turnovers that led to 21 Commodore points.
The Wild Dogs of this team's defensive line can replicate that performance against a team that is giving up three sacks per game. As long as the Commodore defense holds up, Vandy should be able to walk off Dudley Field with bowl eligibility secured.
The Pick: Vanderbilt 34, Kentucky 21
The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Georgia (+3.5) over AUBURN. It's a stretch, but I like UGA's chances to knock off an Auburn team that has been coasting since beating Texas A&M in October (wins over FAU, Arkansas, and Tennessee). It's not as though Georgia has faced better teams over that span (Florida, Appalachian State), but they have brought back the second most important player on the team now that Todd Gurley is healthy again. If that can push the 'Dawgs back to their early season form, they can push a very good Auburn team to the limit on the road. That's a lot of speculation, but it's also the best underdog bet in the SEC this week.