The Vanderbilt Commodores and Kentucky Wildcats meet Saturday in what is, as is frequently the case, probably a battle to determine who finishes sixth in the SEC East. That’s complicated by Will Muschamp being South Carolina’s head coach, of course, but there seems to be a good chance that this game is a Loser Leaves Town match with Mark Stoops and Derek Mason both seemingly on the hot seat.
We talked with wamarsh, writer for A Sea of Blue, and he doesn’t think Stoops’ job is in much jeopardy. Mostly because a head coach with a 14-27 career record (5-22 in the SEC) has an eight-figure buyout for some reason. But okay, we’ll let wamarsh explain that one...
1. Firing coaches immediately after a loss to Vanderbilt is a long-standing SEC tradition, most recently seen in 2012 with both Joker Phillips and Derek Dooley. If Kentucky loses this game, does Mark Stoops still have a job on Monday?
Opinions will vary on this among UK fans. I think Stoops is safe regardless of Saturday's outcome for a few reasons. First and foremost, if Mark Stoops is fired prior to December 1st, 2016 he will be owed $15.5 million. If Stoops is getting fired this season, it will happen after that date when the figure drops down to "only" $12 million regardless of the fact that Vanderbilt is the gravedigger for bad coaches.
Second, the temperament of UK's Athletic Director is practically benign in today's world of cut-throat collegiate athletics. I suspect if Stoops is fired this year, it will take a three-win season which is giving him a low bar given this roster. I also suspect external factors like which coaches are free agents and which schools have vacancies will play large roles. It will take a strong candidate that wants the UK job to get UK to swallow the money owed to Stoops and his staff prior to December 1st, 2017. The new football facilities are amazing, but I don't know if UK can attract a great candidate if there end up being ten better jobs than UK's vacant come late November.
2. Kentucky's defense has given up 41 points per game not counting the South Carolina game for obvious reasons (because Will Muschamp.) Does Kentucky have it in them to slow down an attack that's scored 23 points in three games against Power 5 teams?
If you asked me this question two weeks ago I would have said Vanderbilt would hang 35 points on Kentucky. After the defense allowed the same amount of rush yards combined against Alabama and South Carolina that it allowed in just the Southern Miss game, I'm cautiously optimistic that there's been actual improvement. UK stands a chance against Vandy if one agrees that Vandy and South Carolina's offenses are roughly similar. S&P+ ranks Vandy's offense 112th which is close to South Carolina's ranking of 122nd.
Having said that, Ralph Webb is an incredibly dangerous running back. UK will likely load the box and force Vanderbilt to win the game throwing the ball, but that's an approach Vandy's staff and players are undoubtedly well-acquainted and prepared for, and yet, Vandy is still ranked 31st overall in Rushing S&P+. Webb had himself a day against a Florida defense that may have been nicked up but it's still impressive. I think he's the best running back UK has faced yet.
If UK's rush defense can hold Webb below his season averages in terms of yards per carry then their improvement will have been cemented in my mind. As for now, it's too early to tell. The final exam is Saturday.
3. Stephen Johnson came on in relief of Drew Barker in the New Mexico State game and since then has looked let's say better than Drew Barker did. Do you think Johnson is the long-term answer at QB, or will Barker get his job back once he's healthy?
This is a great question. I honestly don't know. Both quarterbacks have had outstanding moments (Barker against Southern Miss. in the first half, and Johnson against NM State), but both have also been sporadic. I think both have a long way to go in terms of consistency, but Johnson is a somewhat safer option considering UK's offensive line can leak like a sieve, and his scrambling abilities help to keep plays alive. At the same time, Barker probably has the higher upside in terms of making a wider array of throws.
If Johnson leads the team to victories while Barker is injured I don't see how the coaches would bench him when Barker gets back. Johnson is in the driver's seat even if I'm not sure yet how high his ceiling is.
4. There is a good chance that this game turns into a punt-fest. Is Kentucky's punter any good, and are you taking the over or under if I set it at 12 punts between the two teams?
True freshman Grant Mackinnis is actually a pretty decent punter considering his age. He's averaging 41 yards per punt this season, but he averaged 44 yards per punt versus Alabama last week. Hopefully that's an omen that he's continuing to improve. He only averaged 35 yards per punt in the season-opener against Southern Miss.
Hmm. Combined, UK and Vandy are averaging right at 11.4 punts per game. A common view would be "Look at these two terrible offenses. They are going to punt a bunch" but I think there will be other factors at play. UK's offense has been good this season in terms of standard down efficiency and explosiveness. Given that Vandy's defense isn't playing as well as last season in terms of standard or passing downs, I think that's enough to keep UK from punting above its season average of five punts per game.
At the same time, Vandy's offense is a good running team and UK's rush defense is ranked 86th in S&P+. I don't foresee Vandy hitting many big plays, but I definitely can envision a reality in which the offense led by Webb picks up 3-5 yard chunks running the ball, thereby marching down the field, chewing game clock, and limiting overall possessions.
With that in mind, I'll take the Under.
5. Now, be honest: this game is less important than Big Blue Madness next Friday, isn't it?
Ha. Well, for me, this is the biggest game of the season. UK has to have this win to even cling to minuscule bowl aspirations. I'm thinking about making the long drive to Lexington to watch the game despite the fact it conflicts with many other things ongoing in my life. It's a terrible weekend for me to drive several hours to watch a game, but here I am seriously contemplating it because fandom makes us stupid.
But for many (the majority?) UK fans, Big Blue Madness is the official time when attention shifts to basketball, so it's not unfair to characterize a big chunk of the UK faithful that way. Win or lose Saturday in Commonwealth Stadium, their UK sports season will begin with the tip-off of BBM on the other side of campus. Depending on the results of the UK-Vandy game, I might be right there with them.
6. Finally, pick for the game?
I'll admit to not having a firm handle on this game, and it's times like this when I default to being a homer, so here's a weak case for picking Kentucky to win on Saturday. UK's defense kept South Carolina's offense in check which is ranked very similar to Vandy's offense only a few weeks ago, and the defense didn't embarrass itself versus Alabama. Defensive improvement may actually be real. Meanwhile, Kentucky's offense is roughly analogous to the Middle Tennessee St offense that scored 24 points and produced nearly 500 yards of offense against this Vandy defense.
More logic for my preconceived narrative: Webb will get his yards despite UK stacking the box, but as the game progresses UK's offense will layer on points which will force the Commodores out of their game plan. They'll have to throw the ball more at which point Webb's abilities are mitigated. UK will beat Webb more with their offense than their defense, is what I'm saying.
Barring special teams scores or defensive touchdowns - both features from last year's UK-Vandy game so possible! - I'll be a homer and say UK wins 21-13.