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Vanderbilt Football 2023 Summer Opponent Preview: Kentucky Wildcats

Who’s their running back? Oh, it’s on like Donkey Kong.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Kentucky
Why did I choose this photo? No reason.
Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

The Opponent: Kentucky Wildcats

When: September 23, 2023

Where: FirstBank Stadium

Last year: 7-6 (3-5 SEC.) Kentucky opened the season ranked 20th, rose as high as 7th after a 4-0 start (aided, in part, by Florida not being all that good, as it turned out.) And then, over the final eight games of the regular season, they scored 140 points, or 17.5 ppg. That was with Will Levis, who was viewed as a first-round quarterback during the season (and actually went in the second round to the Titans.) You could view that as a sign that Levis isn’t all that good, or you could view it as a sign that the offense was a clusterfuck. Then, for good measure, after Levis opted out of the Music City Bowl, they got shut out by Iowa.

The last time we saw these guys: Vanderbilt went up to Lexington last November 12 on a 26-game SEC losing streak, and left with a 24-21 win.

Series record: Kentucky leads, 48-43-4. Vanderbilt’s win last season snapped a six-game winning streak for the Wildcats in the series.

Head Coach

I am now convinced that Mark Stoops, owner of a 66-59 record in ten seasons at Kentucky, is never leaving. At least, not any time soon. Kentucky’s now made a bowl game in each of the last seven seasons, something that’s never been accomplished there before, and while that’s just a measure of basic competence they’ve managed to have two 10-3 seasons with a Citrus Bowl win in there. I also think, though, that we’ve already seen his peak: it’s 10-3 with a Citrus Bowl win. Last year, Kentucky was ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 for the first time since 1978, and finished it with a 21-0 loss to Iowa in the Music City Bowl. Still, I, personally, would kill for what Kentucky’s done under Stoops, because that’s never been done at Vanderbilt.


Last season, Kentucky had a borderline first-round quarterback in Will Levis (who we were told might go at #1 overall) and a quality running back in Chris Rodriguez, and that offense managed to score 20.4 ppg — a number that was actually propped up by early season performances against the likes of Miami (Ohio), Youngstown State, and Northern Illinois. Shockingly, Mark Stoops elected to fire the offensive coordinator responsible for that and brought back Liam Coen, whose 2021 offense produced 32.3 ppg.

Coen, though, will have to bring back that offense without Levis and Rodriguez, but since this is 2023 and you don’t have to develop anyone any more, Kentucky just poached a new quarterback and running back from the portal and definitely didn’t tamper with the latter, no sir, that just happened. New quarterback Devin Leary had a breakout season in 2021 at NC State, where he completed 65.7 percent of his passes for 3433 yards with 35 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. He then got injured in 2022 and missed half the season, but Kentucky will probably be fine with him at quarterback. As for the running back, I assume you’re all familiar with him and I’m not going to mention him by name here.

So, remember how Kentucky averaged 20.4 ppg with Levis and Rodriguez last season? Well, four of the five starters off that offensive line are back. Remember, Kentucky had a competent quarterback and running back last season, so draw your own conclusions about the offensive line that will be blocking for Leary and [NAME REDACTED.] Receiver Barion Brown and tight end Jordan Dingle were both True Freshman All-Americans last season in case you needed more evidence that the offensive coordinator was incompetent. Coen should be able to get plenty out of this unit.


Kentucky’s defense carried the team last season thanks to holding opponents to 19.2 ppg; now, that unit has to replace eight starters. The defensive line should be fine: 6’6”, 348-pound Deone Walker (40 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, one sack as a true freshman) looks like a budding problem, and there’s basic competence in the form of Octavious Oxendine (seven starts) and Tre’vonn Rybka (eight starts), and former five-star Keeshawn Silver is in from North Carolina.

The back eight is where the question marks are, though even there, Kentucky has at least a couple of quality players with linebacker D’Eryk Jackson, the team’s leading tackler, and safety Jordan Lovett, who had 62 tackles and two interceptions as a redshirt freshman last season. The rest of the starting defensive backfield will have to be replaced, with a combination of last year’s role players and a couple of transfers, Jantzen Dunn from Ohio State and JQ Hardaway from Cincinnati. Linebacker could be a strength with Jackson and Trevin Wallace (two interceptions) both back. Kentucky was less active in the transfer portal than it was on offense, which could be a sign that the defense is about to drop off, but it could also be a sign that Stoops has more trust in the talent coming up than he did on offense. This unit might not be able to hold opponents to 19.2 ppg, but if the offense is competent, the defense won’t hold the team back.

Special Teams

Kentucky will have a new kicker and punter this season with the graduations of both Matt Ruffolo and Colin Goodfellow — though the latter was replaced by Wilson Berry after breaking his leg against Missouri on the most roughing the punter that has ever roughed the punter. Since we’re not developing guys any more, Kentucky brought in former Georgia Southern kicker Alex Raynor, a reliable if limited kicker who’s made 45 of 59 career field goals but with a career long of 47. Berry wasn’t much of a dropoff from Goodfellow and will probably hold on to the punting duties; he’s Australian, because of course he is.

In addition to being the team’s top receiver, Barion Brown is a problem in the return game, averaging 27.5 yards per kick return with a touchdown last season. Punt returner Tayvion Robinson is less dangerous; he’s also back.


  • September 2 vs. Ball State
  • September 9 vs. Eastern Kentucky
  • September 16 vs. Akron
  • September 23 at Vanderbilt
  • Septembr 30 vs. Florida
  • October 7 at Georgia
  • October 14 vs. Missouri
  • October 28 vs. Tennessee
  • November 4 at Mississippi State
  • November 11 vs. Alabama
  • November 18 at South Carolina
  • November 25 at Louisville


Kentucky should have a pretty high floor. Leary and [NAME REDACTED] is going to be a nice backfield, the receiving corps is fine, and they have a new offensive coordinator. We’ll see, I guess, how much of the problem last season was the playcalling and how much was the offensive line, but we at least know one of those has been fixed. The defense has to replace some guys, but you can probably trust a Stoops team to do well on that side of the ball.

And then you look at the schedule and... you start to see a hard cap on the upside of this team. They draw Alabama from the West, which is not ideal. If you believe that Tennessee is officially Back, they’re probably not winning that one, either. Road games at South Carolina and Louisville aren’t going to be easy. This smells like a 7-5 team.