Vanderbilt still has postseason aspirations, but that hope will be all but extinguished if they can't squeeze out a home win against Kentucky this weekend. The 3-6 Commodores need at least two wins in their final three games to sniff the NCAA's new definition of bowl eligibility, and neither scenario is entirely likely without a win over the 4-5 Wildcats.
They'll need to step up their offense to get there. The 'Dores passed for only 31 yards in last week's near-upset of Florida, and while Ralph Webb managed to rumble for 118 yards, 74 of those game on one carry. That limited his impact to just 2.1 yards per carry against a Gator defense that never really had to worry about the threat of a passing attack.
Kentucky will be the same way if Kyle Shurmur and Johnny McCrary can't move the chains through the air. Over the past two games, the pair has combined to throw zero touchdowns and three interceptions while completing just eight of their 34 passing attempts. That's capital-B Bad, but they'll get a bit of a break against an average Wildcat secondary. Will they be able to take advantage and find their rhythm? Let's discuss.
Christian D'Andrea: Two teams with strong defenses, questionable offensive lines, and a workhorse running back who may be their only hope of making things happen. This game is going to look like a Mortal Kombat fight where regular Sub-Zero takes on palate-swapped Sub-Zero, isn't it?
Vanderbilt will have to do two things on defense; rattle Patrick Towles early to prevent him from finding a rhythm, and slow down Boom Williams. The first should be manageable. The Commodores boast a tremendously underrated defensive line that occupies blockers and collapses pockets with regularity. The second part won't be as easy, but Vandy can employ one of the hottest defenders in all of college football to shadow Williams - inside linebacker Zach Cunningham.
It's tough to overstate how important Cunningham was to this team in their near-upset of Florida last week. He was all over the field thanks to the pursuit skills that keep him following the ball while stealthily avoiding blockers. Another big game from him is paramount to this team's success; especially if the Vandy offense struggles to move the ball again.
That offense should be better against a Kentucky team that rates 59th nationally against the pass (Florida was 12th). Kyle Shurmur's return to the lineup will give this team a new facet in the backfield. While I don't expect Andy Ludwig to call many shots downfield, he should be able to create the kind of conservative passing plan that helped move the ball against Missouri. Yes, Vanderbilt only scored 10 points that game, but they also gained 304 total yards without throwing an interception. That stat is roughly on par with other offensive performances that ended with far more turnovers this season.
Of course, getting there will mean that this team's receivers take a big step forward. Vanderbilt's wideouts and tight ends found few holes against a tough Gator defense, and some of those open windows were slammed shut due to dropped passes or mistimed routes. The Commodores will have a better chance for success against the 'Cats, but they need their senior leaders - Kris Kentera and Steven Scheu - to guide the way.
Vanderbilt has a path to victory here, and while it won't take a miracle, it will take improvement. I think that's well within Derek Mason's grasp.
The Pick: Vanderbilt 17, Kentucky 13
The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Missouri (+6.5) over BYU. I mean, how do you even pick this game after everything that's happened in Columbia? I'd be taking a straight Tiger win if they were playing on campus just for the sheer chaos effect of it, but since this game is in Kansas City I'm a little less sure. Mizzou is a bit of a mess, but the fact of the matter is that the Cougars aren't especially good this season, 7-2 record aside. Give me a hot-taek inducing Tiger victory just so I have an excuse not to watch daytime ESPN next week.