Opponent: Kentucky Wildcats
Date: October 20
All-time series record: Kentucky leads, 44-42-2
Last meeting: November 11, 2017, in Nashville. Kentucky won, 44-21.
Last year’s record: 7-6 (92nd in S&P+)
Head coach: Mark Stoops (26-36, 6th year)
Returning starters: 17 (8 offense/9 defense)
In 2017, Vanderbilt finished the season ranked 80th in S&P+. Kentucky finished the season ranked 92nd. Vanderbilt played Kentucky in Nashville.
The box score of that game at Vanderbilt Stadium suggests that the two teams were pretty evenly matched: Kentucky ran 64 plays, Vanderbilt ran 63, and the Wildcats outgained the Commodores 427-368 — not a huge margin. Each team had 21 first downs; Kentucky went 5-for-12 on third down; Vanderbilt, 5-for-13.
The difference, though, was that Kyle Shurmur, who’d thrown three interceptions in the first nine games of the season, threw four against Kentucky. That turned what should have been a competitive game into a 44-21 blowout. Given that Vanderbilt finished the season with a 5-7 record, this was a gigantic missed opportunity.
In 2018, the series returns to Lexington, where Vanderbilt hasn’t won since 2012 (a 40-0 laugher that led to Joker Phillips being relieved of his duties the next day.) S&P+ projects the Wildcats as the 64th-best team in the country, which is 11 spots ahead of Vanderbilt, largely on the strength of Mark Stoops’ relatively strong recruiting and 17 returning starters.
On the offensive side of the ball, everything starts with Benny Snell Jr., the 224-pound junior who’s already run for 2,424 yards and 32 touchdowns in his Kentucky career. And he’ll be running behind an experienced offensive line that returns four starters. But there are question marks in the passing game: Kentucky must replace a solid starter at QB in Stephen Johnson as well as top receiver Garrett Johnson — and to be blunt, Kentucky’s offense wasn’t that good last year with Stephen Johnson and Benny Snell.
The defense returns nine starters, but loses second-leading tackler Courtney Love and another starting linebacker in Denzil Ware, who transferred to Jacksonville State. But that was a unit that allowed 28.2 ppg last year, and the defense was a lot less opportunistic than it looked in forcing four turnovers at Vanderbilt.
Going into the season, I think that to make a bowl game, Vanderbilt will need to win three of its nonconference games, two of its four SEC home games (South Carolina, Florida, Ole Miss, and Tennessee), and then steal a road win during a three-game stretch of consecutive road games that starts with the Kentucky game. If Vanderbilt can avenge last year’s awful loss to the Wildcats — which, on paper, they can do — then this could be Derek Mason’s second bowl team.