Vanderbilt is one win from tying its all-time series with Kentucky at 43-43-4. The good news is, for the first time in their SEC schedule, the Commodores are favored.
Vandy is a three-point favorite against a Wildcat team that already has three conference wins on its record. Kentucky has already toppled South Carolina, Missouri, and Tennessee, but a lackluster defense and inconsistent offense make them a solid candidate to supply the ‘Dores fifth win.
UK is giving up 35.5 points per game in its last four games, which is a stretch that should continue against Kyle Shurmur and a blossoming Vandy offense. The junior quarterback has thrown for 12 touchdowns in his last five games, placing himself among the SEC’s top passers in the process. Another big performance Saturday would keep his team’s postseason hopes alive.
While Vanderbilt’s high APR score makes the program a prime candidate to fill a vacant bowl spot with only five wins, this year’s wide array of mediocre teams suggests the Frisco and Cure Bowls won’t be so desperate for participants. There are 78 available slots for this winter’s 40 bowl games. Currently, 52 teams already have six wins or more. Another 19 more have five wins, and 27 -- including Vandy -- have four.
That means Saturday’s game is paramount to turning Derek Mason’s 2016 bowl cameo into a streak. With Missouri surging and Tennessee as predictable as a dying elk, the Commodores have winnable games but volatile ones. Allowing the Wildcats to slip through their fingers could lead to major regret in December.
Christian D’Andrea: Vandy’s defense stepped up against Western Kentucky, but the difference between the ‘Dores non-conference D and its SEC D is ridiculous. Mason’s team gave up 7.5 points per game in its four wins and 46.6 in five losses — all to conference foes.
Benny Snell has the chops to carry his team to a tough victory, and that’s troublesome. The sophomore tailback has run for 100+ yards in his team’s biggest wins, maxing out at 180 and three touchdowns in a win over Tennessee that may have sealed Butch Jones’ fate with the Vols (sad face). That’s bad news for a running defense that’s ranked just 115th in the FBS despite holding Western Kentucky to -6 rushing yards last week.
The Commodore defense has the talent to surprise us, but most signs point to Vandy needing to score big to pull out a home victory. While that would have been borderline unthinkable in the first 2.5 years of the Mason era, this year’s team is well-equipped for a shootout. The aforementioned Shurmur has laid his claim as the best Vanderbilt passer since Jay Cutler this fall, turning the team into one of the SEC’s most entertaining — albeit frustrating — units.
If he can play up to his season average — 200+ passing yards, two touchdowns, and no turnovers — he’ll give the ‘Dores all the opportunity they’ll need to win this game. Call me a believer.
The Pick: Vanderbilt 35, Kentucky 31
The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Pass. As much as I want to think Auburn can beat Georgia and make a miraculous run to the College Football Playoff, I think the Bulldogs are going to take care of business. The other options — Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee, New Mexico, and Louisiana -- are all pretty grim.
Tom Stephenson: WE WON LAST WEEK!
Yes, that’s right. We’re no longer on a losing streak, and the team got its swagger back against Western Kentucky. That’s important. We saw early this season that this team is capable of a lot better than how they looked during a brutal five-game losing streak, though even in the South Carolina game, they probably should have won. (Football Study Hall said our win expectancy was 57%, which basically means, if the refs aren’t screwing us, we win.)
Kentucky is 6-3 this season, but a closer look at the numbers suggests they’re quite fortunate to have that record. S&P+ gives them 3.2 second-order wins, meaning they’ve played much more like a 3-6 team. They had a 6% win expectancy against Southern Miss, 79% against Eastern Kentucky, 57% against South Carolina, 16% against Eastern Michigan, 35% against Missouri, and 67% against Tennessee. They won all of those games.
Sure, I think this game could be close, but I think Vanderbilt is the better team. APR bowl eligibility!
The Pick: Vanderbilt 41, Kentucky 34
SEC Upset Pick of the Week: MISSISSIPPI STATE (+14) over Alabama. Hell yeah, I like to live dangerously.
VandyTigerPhD: I have to agree with my esteemed colleagues here. Our offense is too good to be held down against Kentucky. Unfortunately for us, Kentucky is playing above their ability and we’ve not had good times against them in recent years. Nonetheless, I’m not terribly worried about our ability to put points on the board. Who the hell thought I’d be saying anything of the sort at the start of the season?
However, Kentucky will be putting up points on us. I cannot see our defense stepping it up here where they couldn’t even do it against USC. This defense for whatever reason just plays differently against SEC foes. You can chalk part of that to talent, but a clear part of it seems to be confidence. I predict Kentucky will be able to put up a solid amount of points on us. Who the hell thought I’d be saying anything of the sort at the start of the season?
The Pick: Vanderbilt 31 - Kentucky 30
SEC Upset Pick of the Week: I really do wanna go with TENNESSEE (+13.5) over Mizzou, because you know Tennessee fans have to be on a constant roller coaster. I will instead chicken out and go with the coin flip and pick Auburn (+2.5) over Jawga.