Vanderbilt and Kentucky will face off on Saturday with more than 100 years of football history on the line. Whoever wins in Lexington will hold the lead in an all-time series that dates back to 1896.
The Commodores ran up a hot streak against their conference foes under James Franklin, but plenty has changed since the last time these two teams saw each other. Franklin is gone from the Vandy sideline and has been replaced by Derek Mason. The 'Dores are also missing an entire defensive secondary and the high-impact receivers that played in each of those wins over the Wildcats.
While Vanderbilt trends downwards, Kentucky is building momentum. Second-year coach Mark Stoops is 0-1 against this team, but that loss came without 2014 starting quarterback Patrick Towles (305 passing yards per game) in the lineup or a recruiting class that ranked 17th in the country on the roster. The Wildcats took Florida into triple overtime two weeks ago and have been seething over a game that they should have won ever since. They'll be ready for Vandy, even if the Commodores are beginning to hit their stride on offense.
Mason will turn to quarterback Patton Robinette to keep that rhythm going. Robinette looked solid in one quarter of play against South Carolina (4-5, 55 yards and a touchdown) but left that game in the first quarter due to a possible concussion. If the sophomore is still feeling the effects of that injury, he'll give way to Wade Freebeck. Freebeck looked stable in the pocket for the 'Dores despite his young age, and it's safe to say that Vandy fans are feeling much better about their quarterback situation in week five than they were in week three.
Will that be enough to pull off an upset on the road against the Wildcats? Let's take a closer look:
Christian D'Andrea: The bad news for Vanderbilt this weekend is that Kentucky's quarterback timing is just terrible for the 'Dores. The Commodores took advantage of Jalen Whitlow's inexperience last year (4 INTs) thanks to a veteran secondary that knew how to make plays. This year, Vandy will be the team with the outmatched position thanks to four brand-new starters in the backfield and UK's quarterback of the future, Patrick Towles. Towles will be looking to throw the ball often against a team who has struggled to stop the pass, and while elevating Paris Head to the starting lineup should help, it's tough to see this team making huge strides in the backfield due to their collective lack of SEC playing time.
That means that Vanderbilt will have to put up some significant points to win this one - something that seemed absurd just two weeks ago. Robinette and Freebeck both showed improved accuracy and the ability to fit passes into tight windows against Carolina. They'll have to return to that well against Kentucky to give this team a chance to win because it's not especially logical to rely on a pair of special teams touchdowns every game.
One of the more underrated aspects of this game will be whether or not Kentucky can pack Commonwealth Stadium with fans and work to rattle a pair of young quarterbacks by creating a hostile environment. Lexington isn't death valley, but all of Vandy's games so far have taken place in the friendly confines of Nashville. If this game is close in the fourth quarter, Kentucky's fans could be a significant factor against a team who will be turning to underclassmen at quarterback, tailback, and wide receiver.
In the end, I think Kentucky's year-long improvements will trump Vanderbilt's two-week rise. I expect to see the Commodores take another valuable step forward, but this one could be lost in the fourth quarter. Let's hope I'm wrong.
The Pick: Kentucky 27, Vanderbilt 24.
The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Memphis (+19) covers vs. OLE MISS. The Tigers went to UCLA and took a one-possession loss (42-35). They've rolled Austin Peay and Middle Tennessee already this season (99-17). Memphis is surging right now, and while I don't think they'll be able to beat Dr. Bo, they should be able to keep this one close.
Andrew VU '04: In last week's bout with South Cackalacky, I saw a lot of positives. A lot. Enough to step off the ledge. Does that mean we're ready to win an SEC game? No. Kentucky, despite what we want to believe, is a lot better this year than last (and worlds better than a few years ago).
If I knew The General would have a clean bill of health, and that Woestman and Burks would be returning at 100%, I'd be willing to flip a coin with this one. That we don't know that, and that having any of the three play the whole game would be a coup at this point, makes it impossible to pick the Dores with any degree of confidence.
We're beating the hell out of that bullshit spread, though.
The Pick: Kentucky 38, Vanderbilt 31 (O.T.). I so want to pick Mason's boys this week, but though they made major strides last week, I'm not sure they made SEC game winning strides. Even if it's Kentucky. No, this has nothing to do with UK taking Florida to the edge in week 3, as Florida is a dumpster fire under Muschamp, and I refuse to listen to people who say otherwise. It has more to do with them coming off a bye and the uncertainty surrounding The General's possible brain injury.
The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Vanderbilt (+17) covers vs. KENTUCKY. I know, I know... we're not supposed to pick the same game twice, but come on. Look at the conference schedule, gamblers. Is Mizzou going to cover +5 against the Game Penises? No chance. Will Memphis keep Dr. Bo from blowing them out? Apologies to CDA, but no. No. Will aTm win by less than 10 against Arkansas? Well... I came really close to picking this, but I just don't see anyone slowing down aTm's Air Raid for 4 quarters. Arky will keep it close until the late 3rd, when their legs will give out, and aTm will jump to a 2 TD lead. If you really want an upset to throw a c-note on, take New Mexico State (+43) against LSU. Why? It's a 43 point spread and we don't know if LSU's ready to hand the keys to the engine to Brandon Harris. Though he's their only shot for sustained offense, he's also a freshman, and the turnovers will run like wine. Screw it, I'm changing it. New Mexico State (+43) covers vs. LSU.
VandyTigerPhD: As I have said many times this week, this team has shown a tremendous amount of growth and improvement in the last two weeks. Tremendous. They have a real shot at this game, no doubt. In addition, as I cover in this week's Bad Cop/Rogue Cop, I think that this is truly our best shot at an SEC victory. The remainder of the SEC schedule is all tougher games, and barring some of that "win a game we shouldn't" magic, we only have one real SEC victory on paper - Kentucky.
I think the team knows this, I think the coaches know this. That's why I'm not only expecting more improvement, but a lot more drive and determination at UK tomorrow. These guys have started to play like they believe they can win, and that is the biggest ingredient you need (other than talent) to win. By no means is this a write-off game. Kentucky is markedly better than they were in recent history. They also see a real chance at a bowl game, and they themselves are marking this game as the beginning of the road to victory. A lot is on the line for both teams.
The Pick: Vanderbilt 35 Kentucky 31. I'm really going against my gut here, and I'm honestly going with the heart. I *want* to believe it's going to be enough in Lexington. I really do. I honestly do believe though that this game is going to be close, no matter what the perception seems to be. We have earned the reputation this season for allowing blowouts, I'm *hoping* we overcome it this week. As every close game really comes down to one or two big plays, it's almost impossible to call. I'm therefore saying a special teams wacky play causes the victory.
The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Well VU04 stole my thunder again, because I think a 43 point spread is absurd no matter who the hell is playing. Once a team gets that far ahead, they're going to have their second and third team guys in, and the playcalling is going to get more conservative. Yes, Les and the Tigers are furious over their third home loss over 5+ seasons (the other two are #1 Bama and #1 UF), but they're very likely not going to cover 43 points.
That said, LSU not covering that absurd spread is not my call this week. My call is sure to anger Dores fans as I think Tennessee covers (+17) agianst UGA. I too almost went Arky (+9), but I gotta believe that even if its a close game, Aggie will get a late score to put them over the spread.
VandyImport: I want to believe. I want to think that we can still get over on Kentucky with an imperfect game, like last year. I want to believe that a perfect game will result in another 40-point blowout. But we're a long way from that, and this is going to be a shootout game. The thing that gives me hope is that the offensive play-calling is finally starting to work toward this team's strengths. Lots of Webb. Plenty of changeups to Seymour. Hit the tight end when they've got nine guys in the box trying to slow down the run. Kick in a few changeup plays - Sherfield on the end-around, or get Sims loose, and bombs away. Maybe, just maybe, we'll catch it fresh in the morning and be OK.
The Pick: Vanderbilt 31, Kentucky 27. I WANT TO BELIEVE.
The SEC Upset Pick Of The Week: Me (+6) making it out of bed in time for a 9 AM PDT kickoff. I have an extra bottle of Stumptown Cold Brew waiting to be the booster shot and a flask of St George NOLA to get it going after that.