Opponent: Kentucky Wildcats
Date: November 16 in Nashville
All-Time Series Record: Kentucky leads, 45-42-4.
Last meeting: Kentucky won, 14-7, last year in Lexington. Ke’Shawn Vaughn missed this game due to injury, and weather conditions made this an extremely weird game. Still, Vanderbilt had its chances to win, but Kentucky picked up its third win in a row in the series.
Last year: 10-3, 25th in S&P+
Head coach: Mark Stoops (36-39, 7th year)
Kentucky was extremely patient with Mark Stoops, and it paid off massively in 2018.
For the first time since 1977, and only the third time ever, the Wildcats won ten games in a season. Granted, the Wildcats won some of those by the skin of their teeth: they needed a late pass interference call to beat Missouri, and there was also the aforementioned win over Vanderbilt, as well as a three-point win over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl. They also ended a long losing streak to Florida. The final S&P+ ranking (25th) indicates that they might not have been a “true” 10-win team. But after long decades of battling Vanderbilt to stay out of the cellar of the SEC East, Kentucky fans would take that again.
And now, just as soon as Kentucky hit its peak, the Wildcats are hitting the reset button. Hard. Kentucky ranks 114th nationally in returning talent — and 127th on the defensive side of the ball. The defense, which held opponents to an average of 16.8 ppg in 2018, was unquestionably the strength of the team.
Kentucky returns just four defensive starters, and chief among the losses is DE/LB Josh Allen, the 7th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Allen basically made the Kentucky defense what it was in 2018: he had an incredible 21.5 tackles for loss and 17 sacks. Gone, too, are ball-hawking DBs Darius West and Derrick Baity, who combined for 13 passes defensed and 4 interceptions in 2018.
The offensive side isn’t much better. The Wildcats move on from RB Bennie Snell, who ran for 3873 yards and 48 touchdowns over three years at Kentucky. They do return QB Terry Wilson and top receiver Lynn Bowden. Wilson managed a 67.2 percent completion rate in his first year with the Wildcats, but that came with just 11 touchdowns to 8 interceptions and 7 yards per attempt. And that was with opposing defenses keying on Snell. If there’s good news, junior Asim Rose averaged 6.2 yards per rushing attempt as Snell’s backup.
If 2018 was the breakthrough, 2019 is when we’ll find out if that was a one-year blip or if Kentucky has real staying power under Mark Stoops. Stoops has recruited well enough that there could be players good enough to plug in and stay respectable. On the other hand, Josh Allen and Benny Snell were all-timers for the program who aren’t going to be easily replaced — and it would be a different story if they were the only losses, but Kentucky graduated key players all over the field. Suffice to say, they probably won’t win ten games in 2019.