Vanderbilt has a chance to clinch bowl eligibility on Saturday, but a rebuilding Kentucky team stands in their way. The Wildcats are led by some young players. Underclassmen like Jojo Kemp and Jalen Whitlow, along with JUCO transfer Javess Blue, lead an underrated offense into Nashville with an upset on their minds.
UK hasn't been able to hang with the Commodores recently. Vanderbilt has thrashed Kentucky over the past two years to the tune of 38-8 and 40-0 beatdowns. This year they'll bring a new coach down to Dudley Field looking to reverse that trend. So far, Mark Stoops has earned accolades for his recruiting, but he has yet to secure a signature win for Big Blue Nation.
Can he earn his first conference win as a head coach on Saturday? We enlisted the help of A Sea of Blue's Glenn Logan (nee Truzenzuzex) to get a better look at the Wildcats. We had questions, and he had answers.
1. Jojo Kemp has gotten stronger as this season wears on and seems to be adjusting well for a true freshman tailback. Can he soften up a Vandy defense that has been hit or miss in 2013? What are his strengths and weaknesses?
Kemp has been running the ball well, as has Raymond Sanders. They are both a little small for SEC backs, but they are fast, catch it pretty well and are hard to bring down.
Kemp's strength is his toughness - Mark Stoops once said after practice he "thought [Kemp] was going to pull out a knife and stab somebody." His weakness, of course, is his inexperience and youth. He also doesn't have the greatest hands.
The answer to your question about softening up the defense is complex. If Vandy can keep enough defenders in the box, then neither Kemp nor Sanders are going to have much success. So the key is, can Kentucky throw the ball well enough to force your defense to play our receivers honest? If the answer is no, then I expect eight in the box.
One added dimension is Whitlow's running ability. You have to account for him because of the read option, and if the passing game is going okay, it will probably put the Commodore defense at a disadvantage, and Kemp, Whitlow and Sanders can be effective in that scenario.
2. Jalen Whitlow seems to have settled in as Kentucky's quarterback, and the 'Dores are expecting to see him take the reins in Nashville this weekend. How did Whitlow earn the starting job for the 'Cats? How has he improved since last year's meeting, where he completed just five of 12 passes?
Whitlow earned the starting job because Maxwell Smith refused to trust his receivers, and is just too injured to be effective. Whitlow has improved both in his progressions and his touch, but he is still not an SEC-quality quarterback in my view.
What he can do, though, is run, and he is Kentucky's 3rd leading rusher, averaging 4.5 yards per carry. His legs enable him to force defenses to play the run honestly, because he is much more dangerous than the average quarterback when he tucks it.
3. Whitlow is an effective runner, and has scored six rushing touchdowns this season. Can Vanderbilt expect to see any read option plays - this team's kryptonite - from Kentucky on Saturday? Or is Whitlow more of a scrambler?
Yes, you will. You'll see plenty of read option, and if that's the soft spot of your defense, you're going to have to gamble on the outside with the receivers and stack the box.
Whitlow can run, period. He can scramble and he can run like a back. What he doesn't do all that well is throw.
4. Kentucky seems to have a very solid pair of defensive ends in Alvin Dupree and Za'Darius Smith. Are those two strong enough to keep redshirt freshman Patton Robinette uncomfortable in the pocket? Can the rest of the Wildcat defense rise up to their level when it comes to putting pressure on the quarterback?
We have seen good games and bad games from our defensive ends, but the real problem has been UK's defensive line, which was reckoned to be a strength but just hasn't been - the interior linemen just can't get off blocks.
I have no idea what to expect from Smith or Dupree this game. They will play hard, and they'll get in Robinette's face, but it depends on how good your tackles are as to whether or not they'll make him uncomfortable.
5. Let's talk Mark Stoops's guys. Other than Kemp, which of Stoops's heralded recruits can Vanderbilt expect to see on Saturday? How excited is the BBN fanbase about the job he's done on the recruiting trail?
You'll be seeing Javess Blue, a 4-star JUCO transfer and our leading receiver. You'll also be seeing Ryan Timmons, a very fast wideout who is probably our most explosive player with the ball in his hands.
On defense, you'll see some of Jason Hatcher, a 4-star defensive end who will spell Dupree and Smith, and Blake McClain, one of our better cornerbacks.
6. Vanderbilt typically gets the advantage of facing Kentucky once basketball season has already started. What kind of effect, if any, does that have on UK football and its fans?
The impact on this game will probably be negligible, but 2-6 teams don't reasonably expect their fans to turn out in vast numbers on the road. Still, there should be a decent UK presence in Nashville on Saturday, with plenty of time to get back for the basketball game on Sunday.
7. Finally, what's your prediction for Saturday's game?
Right now, I have no particular reason to be optimistic, given that Vanderbilt went down and upset the Florida Gators in the Swamp. 33-21 Vanderbilt sounds about right to me.