HEAD TO HEAD: VANDERBILT VS. KENTUCKY

Vanderbilt visits Kentucky on Saturday in Lexington. VandyMania.com's Matt Zemek compares the two teams in several critical areas. He also makes a prediction on the game's final score.

VANDERBILT PASSING OFFENSE
VS.
KENTUCKY PASSING DEFENSE
EDGE: KENTUCKY
REMARKS: Vanderbilt is next to last in the SEC through four games with an average of only 164.3 passing yards per game. The Commodores, as all its fans are aware, have been pressing the panic button at the quarterback spot this season. Head coach Derek Mason has been playing the “ball under the hat” game you might see between innings at a baseball game. It’s been tough to follow all the switcheroos that have been going on at football’s most important position. Burned redshirts, abrupt hooks, you name it – Mason has not been able to settle on one guy, and the results flow from that cluttered, complicated reality.

What VU fans are hoping for against Kentucky is that Patton Robinette can take hold of this offense and make it his own. Robinette completed 4-of-5 passes against South Carolina, scoring a touchdown and averaging 11 yards per pass attempt (55 yards on his five throws), an excellent total. Robinette did not throw an interception. Wade Freebeck does need playing time, since his redshirt was burned, but if you polled Vanderbilt fans right now, Robinette would probably be the choice to start this road game and set the right tone for the Dores. Freebeck could come in for a series as a change of pace. He could also be used to relieve Robinette if the veteran doesn’t get off to a good start. Robinette leading this offense, though, appears to be VU’s most ideal scenario at this point.

Kentucky’s pass defense is sixth in the SEC, allowing an average of 219.7 passing yards per game. The Wildcats have come up with a modest total of three interceptions. They will probably need one or two to give their offense a boost. Yet, by merely containing Vanderbilt’s passing game (without getting a few takeaways), the Wildcats can still give themselves a good chance to win. Keep in mind here that the Wildcats played a three-overtime game against Florida two weeks ago, which usually inflates offensive stats and makes defensive stats look worse. Florida scored in all three overtime innings against Kentucky.

VANDERBILT RUSHING OFFENSE
VS.
KENTUCKY RUSHING DEFENSE
EDGE: EVEN
REMARKS: Vanderbilt’s rushing offense rates last in the SEC through week four, averaging 119.2 yards per game. Tennessee is next to last at 130 yards even. Vanderbilt’s attempts per game also place the Dores last in the SEC, with 31. Texas A&M is next to last at 33 rushing attempts per game, but as you can readily appreciate, that’s a very different dynamic, given that the Aggies are so proficient at throwing the ball. Vanderbilt’s Ralph Webb had himself a solid game last week against South Carolina, accumulating 97 yards on 19 carries for a healthy 5.1 yards-per-carry average.

Kentucky’s rushing defense could be the moveable object when it faces Vanderbilt’s “resistible force” ground game. The Wildcats are next to last in the SEC with 164.7 rushing yards allowed per game. Only South Carolina (Vanderbilt’s previous opponent) is worse, at 168.5 yards allowed per contest. In Kentucky’s most recent game, against Florida on Sept. 13, Florida running back Matt Jones galloped for 156 yards on 29 carries, an average of more than five yards per carry. That game did last three overtimes, but Jones was still able to get a lot of work done in regulation, before Kentucky’s defense became tired.

KENTUCKY PASSING OFFENSE
VS.
VANDERBILT PASSING DEFENSE
EDGE: KENTUCKY
REMARKS: Kentucky’s passing offense – and keep in mind here that all of these rankings are based on yards, which do not always translate into points – is fourth in the SEC at 320.3 yards per game. This stat is inflated in part by the Wildcats’ three-overtime game against Florida two weeks ago. It’s also a partial product of the fact that Kentucky had to throw the ball a lot in that game to erase multiple deficits. Situations often dictate how much a team has to throw, and so teams can rack up a lot of passing yards without having a truly impressive passing offense. Such is the case with Kentucky. Quarterback Patrick Towles threw three interceptions against Florida and completed only 24-of-45 passes, barely more than 50 percent.

Kentucky gets the edge in this category, though – not because it is better at throwing the ball, but because Vanderbilt is worse at defending the forward pass. That distinction might not matter to some, but sometimes, Team A isn’t better than Team B. It’s more a case of Team B being worse than Team A. The weakness is weaker, as opposed to a strength being stronger. That dynamic can often be a defining part of a two-team comparison, and it applies here.

The Commodores gave up 634 third-and-long conversions last week against South Carolina. Okay, that’s a wee bit of an exaggeration and a decidedly “unofficial statistic,” but you get the point. Vanderbilt could not get off the field on third downs, as South Carolina converted 7-of-12 such situations, usually by taking advantage of soft coverage from the Commodores’ cornerbacks. If Vanderbilt can make substantial improvements in this area on Saturday in Lexington, it will hugely increase its odds of winning. Towles is nothing special as a quarterback, so this really needs to be a point of emphasis for Vanderbilt’s secondary and, to a slightly lesser extent, the linebackers in pass coverage situations.

KENTUCKY RUSHING OFFENSE
VS.
VANDERBILT RUSHING DEFENSE
EDGE: EVEN
REMARKS: Kentucky’s rushing offense is tenth in the SEC at 182.3 yards per game. This total, however, is the result of a huge number of yards against FCS member Tennessee-Martin in week one. The Wildcats rushed for only 81 yards in their SEC opener against Florida. Braylon Heard “led” the Wildcats versus the Gators with a grand total of only 39 yards, gained on 12 carries. Vanderbilt might be able to stop this rushing offense, despite the numbers you’re about to see in the next paragraph:

Vanderbilt’s rushing defense is 11th in the SEC, allowing 156 yards per game. Another statistic which stands out in relation to the Dores’ defense on the ground is that opponents have rushed the ball an average of 42 times per game against VU. This is a byproduct of Temple and Ole Miss building huge midgame leads and just dumping the ball into the line of scrimmage in the final 20 minutes of regulation. It’s therefore hard to get a complete picture of just how strong this rush defense really is. South Carolina realized that the passing game was the way to move the ball against Vanderbilt, which pushed VU’s run defense even more to the side. There’s more information to be gained about this team’s run-based defense.

SPECIAL TEAMS
EDGE: VANDERBILT
REMARKS: If there’s one aspect of the Commodores’ overall profile that is gleaming to the point of not needing any tinkering whatsoever, it’s the kickoff return game. Darrius Sims ran back not one, but two, kickoffs last week for touchdowns of over 90 yards against South Carolina. If Vanderbilt can come anywhere close to that level of output against Kentucky, it will score some easy points and create short fields that will tilt this game in its favor. Kentucky didn’t do anything of note on special teams in its loss to Florida two weeks ago.

COACHING
EDGE: KENTUCKY
REMARKS: Though Vanderbilt gave South Carolina a much better fight than many expected, the Commodores did need two kickoff returns for touchdowns to score 14 of their 34 points. Their defense remains frail, and that’s where Derek Mason was supposed to keep this team strong. Maintaining an offense without Jordan Matthews was always going to be a big ask, but being solid on defense was a more reasonable expectation, and that needs to become the foundation on which a VU resurgence can be established. That attempt to be better on defense has to begin with this game against an unproven Kentucky offense.

All in all, Kentucky and Mark Stoops are showing more signs of forward development this season, though Kentucky is far from being assured of more prosperous times. Florida was there for the taking two weeks ago, and the Wildcats found ways to come up short. That kind of loss could be a source of encouragement for Kentucky, but now Stoops has to get his players to be sure to treat it that way. This team’s offense is anything but polished, and its defense is not taking the ball away with the frequency Stoops wants. The Wildcats do seem to be the better-coached team right now, but it’s not as though the margin is night and day. It’s close, and these teams seem to be close on an overall level as a result.

INTANGIBLES
EDGE: KENTUCKY
REMARKS: It’s been a wild and unsettled season so far. Vanderbilt looked like a bottom-10 team in college football through three weeks, but it came alive against South Carolina and scared the dickens out of the Gamecocks, even with a poor defensive showing. Vanderbilt made plenty of mistakes but still took two solid steps forward… because the first three weeks of the season could not have been worse.

It’s just one person’s opinion, but with Florida getting outclassed by a wide margin last week against Alabama, the Gators aren’t anything to write home about this season. Kentucky’s “noble loss,” the just-miss in Gainesville, seems to be viewed by most of the national media (and the betting experts in Las Vegas) as an indication that Kentucky is about to reach a higher plateau. That seems like a premature reaction – not an inaccurate one, but merely a view that has not yet been justified.

If Kentucky goes out and thumps Vanderbilt by 30 points, okay, then we’ll have reason to think that the Wildcats are truly on the way up in the Mark Stoops era. Until then, it seems that a flawed passing game and a less-than-robust rushing defense, not to mention an inability to consistently take the ball away from an opposing offense, will leave Kentucky vulnerable against Vanderbilt. It’s hard to place complete trust in the Commodores right now, because there’s no question that Derek Mason is still learning how to become a head coach in his first season, but Kentucky does not give the appearance of a team that will run away and hide from VU. This game has “nail-biter” written all over it. Kentucky deserves a slight edge, but not a big one.

PREDICTION: KENTUCKY 26, VANDERBILT 19.


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Also see: Three Keys Vanderbilt at Kentucky

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