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Vanderbilt Commodores 2021 Opponent Preview: Kentucky

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Does a new offensive coordinator hire matter?

TaxSlayer Gator Bowl - North Carolina State v Kentucky Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Opponent: Kentucky Wildcats

Date: November 13, 2021

All-time series record: Kentucky leads, 47-42-4

Last meeting: November 14, 2020; Kentucky won, 38-35

Last season: 5-6, 51st in SP+

Head coach: Mark Stoops (ninth year, 49-50)

Mark Stoops has gotten the defense figured out. The offense, not so much.

In Eddie Gran’s first year as offensive coordinator, a flatlining Kentucky offense jumped to 58th nationally, averaging 30 ppg. In the four years since, Kentucky’s offense has ranked 88th, 85th, 76th, and 108th; ironically, the most effective offense that the Wildcats have fielded in the last four years came with wide receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. playing quarterback.

That’s a problem, and on the heels of a 5-6 season in which Kentucky averaged 21.8 ppg, Gran was relieved of his duties as offensive coordinator. In his place is 35-year-old Liam Coen, most recently the quarterbacks coach for the Los Angeles Rams, whose only previous experience as a coordinator came at Maine in 2016-17.

The weird disappointment of the 2020 season for Kentucky, though, was mostly related to COVID-19. Going to an SEC-only schedule meant getting rid of the Wildcats’ usual soft nonconference schedule; in their place were two additional games against the SEC West. In 2020, Kentucky beat Tennessee, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, and Mississippi State — all opponents that are on the schedule every year — while losing to Ole Miss, Auburn, and Alabama, two of which would not have been on the schedule in a normal year. What probably would have been a 7-5 or 8-4 season under normal circumstances instead brought an end to Kentucky’s four-year streak of winning seasons; and who knows if Stoops would have decided to make a change on the offensive side of the ball.

Still, Stoops has been at Kentucky for eight years, and I’m in “I’ll believe it when I see it” mode when it comes to the Wildcats fielding a competent offense. The defense held opponents to 25.9 ppg last season, and that number was actually inflated by Alabama hanging 63 on them. The possibility of offensive improvement is tempting; the best bet is still on Kentucky being a team that will try to score just enough while the defense holds the line.

Offense

It’s hard to tell whether Terry Wilson heard footsteps or if he just wanted to move on, but either way, he’s off to New Mexico to complete his eligibility. Unlike some of the other opponent previews I’ve written, we’re now deep enough into fall camp that Mark Stoops has named a starter: Penn State transfer Will Levis, who beat out Joey Gatewood for the job (and Gatewood reportedly entered the transfer portal.) As backup to Sean Clifford, Levis had more rush attempts (133) than pass attempts (102) over the past two years; last season, he completed 33-of-55 passes for 421 yards and a touchdown. This feels a bit like a placeholder situation: Kentucky is almost certainly waiting for redshirt freshman and former four-star recruit Beau Allen to be ready, and I suspect Levis’ hold on the starting job is tenuous.

Then again, the quarterback will have help. Running back Chris Rodriguez was ostensibly the backup to A.J. Rose last season, but Rodriguez actually led the team in rushing attempts (119) and yards (785) in spite of playing in just nine games. Backup Kavosiey Smoke (47-229-1) is a solid option as well. Kentucky also caught a big break when top receiver Josh Ali (54-473-1) returned for a fifth year, and unlike last season, the Wildcats should have a viable second receiving option with the addition of Nebraska transfer Wan’Dale Robinson, who had 91 catches for 914 yards and three touchdowns in two seasons with the Huskers. Starting tight end Justin Rigg (12-145-1) also elected to take an extra year, as well, and 6’4”, 190-pound true freshman Chris Lewis, a four-star recruit, could be an immediate contributor.

Up front, Kentucky has to replace a pair of second-team All-SEC selections in left tackle Landon Young and center Drake Jackson, but the Wildcats do return right tackle Darian Kinnard — a first-team All-SEC selection by the AP. (How exactly Kentucky had three All-SEC selections on the offensive line and ranked 108th in points per game is beyond me, but also probably explains why the Wildcats elected to fire the offensive coordinator.) Starting guards Luke Fortner and Kenneth Horsey also return, and 6’7”, 327-pound LSU transfer Dare Rosenthal should step in at left tackle. This should be a fine, if underrated, unit.

Defense

This unit is in a lot of flux, with six starters gone from last season.

Up front, senior defensive end Joshua Paschal (32 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 1 sack) is a proven option. 6’3”, 379-pound senior Marquan McCall (22 tackles, 1 TFL) is the massive nose guard that Kentucky always seems to find, and 6’3”, 336-pound sophomore Justin Rogers, a former five-star recruit, is probably ready for a bigger role after playing in five games in 2020.

The linebacking corps and the backfield, though, were gutted by losses to the NFL. Gone are first-round LB Jamin Davis and second-round CB Kelvin Joseph, as well as LB Boogie Watson, who had 10 tackles for loss and five sacks in 2020. That isn’t to say that Kentucky is lacking in proven players — starting safeties Yusuf Corker (77 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack, 2 INT) and Tyrell Ajian (48 tackles, 1 INT) are back, and so is starting linebacker DeAndre Square (60 tackles, 2.5 TFL) and part-time starters Jordan Wright (45 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks) and Marquez Bembry (25 tackles.) The linebacking corps could get a boost from Ole Miss transfer Jacquez Jones (75 tackles, 2.5 TFL in 2020), but the cornerback spots are both wide open — and there aren’t any obvious candidates to replace Joseph. That Kentucky has to replace a lot on defense is a bad sign, but Mark Stoops usually seems pretty good at piecing together a defense that’s at least solid.

Special Teams

Weeeeeellll... this could be an issue. Matt Ruffolo took over for scholarship kicker Chance Poore in 2019 after Poore randomly shanked a couple of extra points, and Ruffolo is about what you’d expect from a non-scholarship kicker: mostly reliable inside of 40 yards, but with limited range... and, well, he’s also missed three extra points himself. Poore is still on the roster and handled placekicking duties in the Vanderbilt game last year.

At punter, Kentucky only has to replace 2019 Ray Guy Award winner Max Duffy, who ranked third in the SEC in yards per punt last season. No biggie. That job will go to either fifth-year senior walk-on Colin Goodfellow (who had a solid 47.7 yards per punt average on 10 punts last season) or scholarship freshman Wilson Berry.

Schedule

  • September 4 vs. Louisiana-Monroe 11:00 AM/SEC Network
  • September 11 vs. Missouri 6:30 PM/SEC Network
  • September 18 vs. Chattanooga 11:00 AM/SEC Network+
  • September 25 at South Carolina
  • October 2 vs. Florida
  • October 9 vs. LSU
  • October 16 at Georgia
  • October 30 at Mississippi State
  • November 6 vs. Tennessee
  • November 13 at Vanderbilt
  • November 20 vs. New Mexico State
  • November 27 at Louisville

As usual, Kentucky doesn’t play around with the nonconference schedule, scheduling three home games they know they can win along with the season-ending rivalry game against Louisville, a series that has turned in the Wildcats’ favor in recent years with Kentucky winning three of the last four against the Cardinals (including a pair of blowout wins since Lamar Jackson left for the NFL.)

The SEC schedule is manageable. Kentucky has three likely losses in early October, but other than that, getting the two weakest teams in the East (South Carolina and Vanderbilt) on the road is helpful, particularly since it means the other two likely middle-of-the-pack East teams (Missouri and Tennessee) are at home. What it means is that Kentucky can go 8-4 without beating a team better than Missouri.

Recent series vs. Vanderbilt

Kentucky is the annual game that Vanderbilt fans circle on the schedule as the “if we can win an SEC game, it’s that one,” which is why Derek Mason’s 1-6 record against the Wildcats was particularly inexcusable. Mason got Kentucky in his second year — a 21-17 win in Nashville in which Anchor of Gold first judged the cromulence of Kyle Shurmur — before losing five straight, with three close losses in Lexington (20-13 in 2016, 14-7 in 2018, 38-35 in 2020) sandwiched around two ugly, blowout losses in Nashville (44-21 in 2017, 38-14 in 2019), with the most interesting thing about either of those games being when Kentucky fans made a giant cup snake in the stands.

Clark Lea reversing that losing streak, of course, would be highly advisable.

Outlook

So here’s how I break down the SEC East this year: Georgia is pretty far and away the best team in the division, Florida is a not-particularly-close second. South Carolina and Vanderbilt are the two worst teams in the division on paper, and I don’t think that’s really debatable. Missouri looks like a solid third.

Kentucky and Tennessee, then, are two teams that I can’t really get a read on, albeit for very different reasons. In Tennessee’s case, they have a new head coach and a ton of roster turnover, but should still have at least some talent. As for Kentucky, well, the head coach is a known quantity, and there are a lot of question marks, but they’re mostly on the side of the ball where I trust Mark Stoops to figure things out. The offensive side of the ball returns some playmakers and the offensive line should be fine, even very good, but the Wildcats have a new offensive coordinator and a new quarterback and it’s been five years since they fielded a competent offense.

In other words — who the hell knows. I’ve got Kentucky fourth in the East and they’ll probably have an inflated record because the nonconference schedule is a joke and the SEC schedule is favorable in terms of who comes to Lexington, but anything beyond that will be a surprise. Pencil them in for seven or eight wins and another trip to one of the SEC’s second-tier bowls. It’s what Mark Stoops does.