Vanderbilt will roll into Lexington this Saturday with the confidence of three straight lopsided wins on their side. However, they'll be facing a very different Kentucky team than the one they've outscored 100-14 since 2011.
The Wildcats have had two weeks to wash away the disappointment of a triple-overtime loss to Florida and prepare for the Commodores. That's a lot of time for second-year head coach Mark Stoops to prep a team loaded with young talent for revenge. Vandy won't get any reprieve in Lexington. They'll have to battle if they want to leave the Bluegrass State with their first SEC win under Derek Mason.
To get a better idea of what Vanderbilt is in for, I turned to two experts. Will Marshall, better known as wamarsh, is an editor over at SBNation's A Sea of Blue. Tyler Mounce helps run the independent KY Sports Connection. Both are excellent digests of Wildcat athletics, and the two authors were kind enough to answer my questions about this weekend's matchups. Here's what they had to say about Kentucky football in 2014:
1. Patrick Towles has given the Wildcats some stability at quarterback, but his big yardage numbers have also come with some turnover concerns. Is he the QB of the future in Lexington? What are his strengths and weaknesses?
Will Marshall (@wamarsh), A Sea of Blue: He is definitely cementing himself as the quarterback of the future. To those who watched the spring game, it was apparent that he was the obvious starter. He has always had a rocket arm but needed to fix a few fundamentals and learn the college game. He took advantage of his redshirt season last year to improve in these facets. More quarterback competition definitely helped to spur him.
Towles is for the most part a first year starter (albeit he saw limited game action two years ago), and so turnovers are probably inevitable. To this point though, he's managed the game well. Against Florida he did throw one bad pick, but the other two picks were totally on the receivers. On the last INT late in the fourth quarter, he literally hit his receiver in the facemask, in a tight window, and the ball bounced to a Gator.
Tyler Mounce, (@KYSportsConnect) KY Sports Connection: Towles is definitely the QB of the future. His turnovers aren’t that much of a concern just yet, as many of them came against a very good Florida secondary, and two of them came off of balls that hit his receivers hands first. He still has to continue to work on getting the ball out quicker in the quick game, and keep his release as fast as possible, but he’s got a big arm and is extremely mobile for his size.
2. Has Braylon Heard been as good as his stats (14 carries, 155 yards) suggest? How does his running style differ from JoJo Kemp's?
WM: Heard is a weapon but his stats are inflated at the moment. Against UT-Martin he had two carries for 116 yards, and sat out against Ohio in the second week. Against a better Florida defense he averaged 3.3 yards/carry. He is dangerous, and was averaging over 6 yards/carry at Nebraska two years ago playing behind Ameer Abdullah.
He and Kemp both have similar running styles. They came from the high school ranks with a reliance on their speed, and have packed on muscle after getting in a collegiate S&C program. They are physical runners but remain more explosive in open space than between the tackles. I don't think either is the fastest guy among UK's skill players or the strongest, but both guys are "assignment strong" and can get 7-15 yard runs if given a crease.
TM: Braylon has been very good, when he’s been healthy. His numbers are a little deceiving because of the first game of the year when he had two carries for 112 yards and two touchdowns. He missed the Ohio game and was held in check by Florida’s front 7.
He’s a little more physical than JoJo Kemp, who is more known for his speed. Braylon can is fast as well, but he’s a bigger back and can run in between the tackles. He’s probably a bigger home run threat than JoJo at this point.
3. Vanderbilt left several South Carolina receivers open deep in their last matchup but missed most of those opportunities to complete the deep ball. Can Kentucky take advantage of a young Commodore secondary?
WM: I think so. Kentucky's receiver corps is transformed from last season. Three freshmen immediately stepped up and are used heavily in the rotation, along with last year's leading receivers Ryan Timmons and Javess Blue. Senior Demarco Robinson saved his best season for last, and is third on the team in receptions. This group helped Towles throw for 370 yards against Florida's secondary which seemed very impressive until Alabama did what they did.
Reportedly, Blue has recovered from an ankle injury suffered in the first game and is set to return Saturday, as is sophomore Jeff Badet (who started towards the end of last season) who has been out since the spring with various injuries.
TM: I would have to say yes to this question. Patrick Towles threw for over 300 yards and 3 touchdowns against a very talented secondary, and will have Javess Blue back fully healthy. If guys are open downfield, Towles' biggest strength is throwing the deep ball so that wouldn’t be a great situation for the Commodores.
4. Kentucky's opponents seem to have had marginally more success running the ball than throwing it. Who will the Wildcats be relying on to stop Vandy's platoon of Ralph Webb and Jerron Seymour at tailback?
WM: That's a great question, and I'm not sure I have the answer. UK has not been strong against power running plays yet this season. UK's inside linebackers are built like prototypical weak-side backers in a 4-3, but they are asked to fill the roles of traditional inside backers in UK's 3-4. Vandy can do some damage when they go jumbo package, and hand it off to Webb or Seymour.
TM: Kentucky’s front 7 has been a relative strength this year, at least opposed to previous years. Melvin Lewis has been a big upgrade at nose tackle this year, and both Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith will be playing on Sundays at defensive ends. The key will be whether or not Josh Forrest and Khalid Henderson can make the same tackles they missed against Florida’s Matt Jones. You can expect to hear AJ Stamps’ name a lot too on Saturday.
5. Vandy has a pair of quarterbacks who may see action on Saturday. Patton Robinette is an active runner, while Wade Freebeck is a more accurate pocket passer. Assuming that nerves don't play a role (which is probably a mistake since this is Vandy's first game outside of Nashville this year), which quarterback is Kentucky better suited to hinder?
WM: If I had to guess I think UK would rather face Freebeck even if nerves aren't being considered. UK's defensive strength is it's pass defense - both in coverage and rushing the passer. Freebeck being more of pocket passer would play into to UK's strengths, while I worry that Robinette could rush for the first down marker and extend drives when plays break down. In the first two games UK's defenders had a tendency to lose contain allowing more successful quarterback scrambles than are reasonable. If Vandy can extend drives and get first downs then on comes the jumbo package for 3-5 yards on first down, and UK's offense is regulated to the sideline for at least a few more minutes.
6. Finally, what's your prediction for Saturday's game?
WM: I'll go with UK 28-Vanderbilt 14. I think the story of this game will be Vanderbilt's penchant for giving up explosive plays being a mismatch for UK's tendency to make big plays, especially in the air. Likewise, UK has been very good at limiting opponent's explosive plays, and Vanderbilt has so far not been good at creating them outside of special teams.
If Vanderbilt can keep the game close, and continue to be able to run the ball, UK's defense will be challenged; however, I don't see Vandy being able to do that as the game enters the second half. UK probably pulls away via the passing game despite Vandy playing UK's run game fairly well.
TM: I think UK will be able to find some yards in the passing game, and I doubt that Vanderbilt will have as much success stopping the run as Florida was able to, especially with UK being mostly back to full health. Defensively, UK will be looking to play the way they were able to for 2 and half quarters against Florida for the entire game this time.
Final score: UK 34, Vanderbilt 16