Vanderbilt can't afford to lose on Saturday if they want to remain in the hunt for a postseason berth. Fortunately, they're playing a Kentucky team that is in the midst of a four-game skid.
The 3-6 Commodores will host the 4-5 Wildcats in a game that could determine who finishes last in the SEC East. Vanderbilt is stuck in the middle of an up-and-down season that has featured one conference win (Missouri), two tough conference losses where the 'Dores performed above their expectations (Ole Miss, Florida), and two nearly offense-free, borderline inexplicable losses (South Carolina, Houston). Kentucky's heat map has been less volatile. After a 4-1 start where their only blemish came in a five-point loss to Florida, the 'Cats have dropped four in a row - the last three all by 24 points or more.
It's not a sexy game, but it's our game. To help me preview Saturday's battle for 74th place in the FBS, I enlisted the help of an expert. Will Marshall is an Editor over at A Sea of Blue, one of the nation's most comprehensive Kentucky Wildcat sites. He was kind enough to sit down and exchange some answers about Saturday's showdown on the West End. Here's what he had to say; I don't want to spoil it for anybody - but bet the under.
1. Kentucky sits at #74 in this week's Sagarin Ratings; Vanderbilt is #75. What's the general feeling around Big Blue Nation heading into this game? Have you lost much of the casual fanbase to the upcoming basketball season?
Will Marshall, A Sea of Blue: The mood of a fanbase is hard to capture but I think it's fair to say three bad losses in a row have created frustration. Most UK fans thought this team would finish somewhere between 5-7 and 7-5, but the way UK has lost the last three games has created doubt about winning more than 5 games. The team that played hard regardless of the scoreboard a month ago is showing signs of slippage, and that's a huge cause for concern considering a bowl berth is within reach.
UK football by definition has a large population of casual fans. A few commentators on A Sea of Blue (elsewhere too) openly admit in the comment section that they only pay attention to football season because it holds them over in September and October. Many of them have already jumped ship. In my experience in the UK sports blogosphere, those same people are the ones who think UK should immediately be better due to the previous recruiting class, a coaching or JUCO transfer making all the difference, and/or have too high expectations. They bring their cognitive basketball biases to the gridiron.
2. The Wildcats have lost four straight games - the last three coming by an average score of 40 - 13. During that streak, quarterback Patrick Towles has thrown only one touchdown pass while tossing six interceptions. What's been the cause of his regression, and is there any hope that he'll return to competence against a top 25 defense this weekend?
That's easily going to be the most talked about topic this week. I wrote a piece prior to the UGA game drawing the conclusion it wasn't clear Towles had gotten better or worse this season. After the travesty in Athens the argument he hasn't gotten better has certainly gotten stronger. I think the truth is this: Towles hasn't gotten better or worse. He's just stayed the same, but this year he seems worse with an ineffectual offensive line and inconsistent receivers. This year, center Jon Toth and tackle Jordan Swindle were suppose to anchor the line but they haven't improved; meanwhile, UK's receivers are very talented but none catch the ball as consistently as departed seniors.
And a now a change at quarterback may be forthcoming. After Saturday's game, Mark Stoops made it pretty clear they were going to look at all the options at the position. Many fans have wanted to hear this since the Mississippi State game, but even if Drew Barker gets the starting nod he'll still have to play behind the same offensive line, throw to the same receivers, and face a Vandy defense that holds every offense under its season average this year.
3. Running back Stanley "Boom" Williams has been UK's most dynamic offensive treat, but he hasn't played since the second quarter of UK's loss against Tennessee due to an elbow injury. Do you expect him to return to action in Nashville? If he can't play, how does that affect the Wildcats' offensive gameplan? Who steps up in his absence?
I suspect he'll play this Saturday [Edit: since writing, Williams has been ruled active for Saturday's game]. He was listed as day-to-day last week, and this is also the biggest game of the season for UK. The Wildcats will need him on the field to have a chance to win.
If he can't play UK's running game will be impacted. Boom has the ability to make defenders miss tackles in open space consistently against quality SEC defenses. Having said that, he's not exactly backed up by scrubs but they are a bit more limited. Jojo Kemp and Michel Horton are each reliable to make the occasional 5-15 yard play, but Boom is the only one who has proven he's capable of the 60 yard play so far.
4. The Vanderbilt offense has been...what's that thing at the end of the small intestine? Anyway, part of the 'Dores offensive woes can be chalked up to facing two elite defenses (Missouri, Florida) and a solid Houston one. Are the Wildcats equipped to take advantage of Vandy's offensive limitations? Who can stop tailback Ralph Webb, and is UK comfortable in defensive sets that press eight defenders up to the line of scrimmage?
I do think UK's defense will be comfortable against Vandy's offense based solely off how they've played against similar offenses this season. Ralph Webb is a legitimate threat, and he'll get his yards, but UK's defense tends to be fine if the offense only has one skill player to focus on (e.g. Maty Mauk and Pharoh Cooper). It's the diversified attacks that give UK trouble.
As you say, UK will very likely sell-out against the run this week and force Vandy's passing game to beat them. UK was very good at not allowing explosive plays, according to the advanced stats, prior to the MSU and Tennessee games. I think they're will be a regression to the mean against Vandy offense this week. Vandy's proclivity for turnovers, Florida game aside, could also help the 'Cats erase Ralph Webb gains too.
5. Mark Stoops has done a solid job of recruiting in Lexington, but that influx of four-star talent hasn't led to a return to the postseason. Is he on the coaching hot seat? Has the UK culture turned on him during the team's four-game losing streak?
No; not at all. UK has recruited in the 20-30 range mostly based on taking the four stars from Ohio that Ohio State didn't want while subsidizing with Kentucky and other southern states. Recruiting is an area where there aren't any complaints. There haven't been any decommitments during the four game losing streak, and unlike last season, the 2016 commits seem closer. That's probably due to a combination of UK's recruiting staff emphasizing them building bonds as much as it is their personalities.
Having said that, some fans are now asking for changes in the coaching staff and focus on the coordinators. The defense has improved this season (after not improving from 2013 to 2014) but not to the extent for many to think DJ Elliot should keep his job. My issue with that is they don't have names to replace him. UK can't make that move, and Elliot and Stoops go back 15 years, without having someone better in mind. Contrary to what some think, Bud Foster ain't coming to Lexington even if he gets paid $1 million (which UK wouldn't do anyway).
There's also some who think Shannon Dawson should get fired after his first year as offensive coordinator. To me, that's also a bad idea. The young offense needs stability more than anything. Criticism of Dawson as a quarterback position coach is more valid, but overall the offense has performed well against average or poor defenses. That's not a fire-able offense, especially if it's a first year coordinator.
6. Finally, what's your prediction for Saturday's game?
I'm going to be a homer and say UK wins 14-10 on Saturday. I think the UK-Vandy game will follow a similar model to the UK-Missouri game. UK's defense will perform well against a poor offense which in turn will gift UK's offense good field position. A Vandy interception will contribute. UK's offense won't beat Vandy's defense so much as be dealt pocket pairs on 80% of their possessions, and that will prove just enough for UK to escape Nashville with a tough road win.