Vandy Opponent Preview: Kentucky

If preseason rankings are to be believed then this game against Kentucky represents Vanderbilt’s only chance at winning an SEC contest. The ‘Dores take on the Wildcats in the tenth game of the season, and it is the sixth of the eight SEC games for Vanderbilt. Regardless of how the Commodores have played to this point, this should be a game where Derek Mason and staff have the team ready to win.

2014 Record: 5-7 (2-6 in the SEC. Sixth in SEC East.) – No bowl game.

Series Record: Kentucky leads the series 42-41-4 in a series dating back to 1896. The Commodores won the first nine matchups in the series between 1896 and 1918, while Kentucky’s longest winning streak was six in a row from 1976 to 1981.

Last Meeting: In an ugly game which saw zero points scored in the entire second half Kentucky took their 17-7 half time lead and maintained it for their first SEC win since 2011. Quarterback Patrick Towles was the man who did the damage, throwing a 20-yard touchdown pass and scoring on a 1-yard run. Vanderbilt could still have won the game, but three fourth quarter interceptions doomed the ‘Dores on the day.

Head Coach: Mark Stoops will be entering his third year as the Kentucky head coach with a 7-17 (.292) win/loss record. Stoops is part of a coaching family which includes brothers Bob (Oklahoma), Mike (formerly Arizona) and Ron (assistant coach at Youngstown State). Before taking the Kentucky gig Stoops worked on the defensive side of the ball at schools including Miami, Arizona and Florida State.

Spring News: Kentucky is one of the few schools where the offense seemed to be ahead of the defense this spring. The Wildcats ran a situational scrimmage as opposed to a full spring game to close out the month of practice and in the scrimmage quarterbacks Patrick Towles and Drew Barker both made big plays. Towles was especially impressive as his error free day gave fans hope that this fall can be another step in moving the Wildcats’ program forward.

Projected Strengths: Stoops let the race run almost to the wire, but with the first game of the season just around the corner he finally named Towles as the Wildcats starting quarterback. At 6’5” and 241 pounds, Towles is a prototypical quarterback to build the team around. The junior accounted for over 3,000 yards of total offense last fall and will be hoping that with more experience he can improve on his 14 touchdowns to nine interceptions.

The offense has a number of interesting skill position players, but it is at running back where Kentucky seems to be the most dangerous. Sophomore running back Boom Williams had 1,159 all-purpose yards last season, including three touchdown runs of 50-plus yards. He is an exhilarating player in the open field, and as such is also a dangerous kick returner, but he was boom or bust last year with either huge games or games where he was a non-factor. Backup running back JoJo Kemp is no slouch himself, rushing for 131 yards and three touchdowns against South Carolina last fall.

Projected Weaknesses: It is never good when both starting defensive ends leave at the same time. Kentucky has to find a way to replace ends Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith who combined for 12 sacks and provided an every down pass rush threat for the Wildcats. While both were something of a liability against the run, Kentucky must quickly find a pair of pass rushers who, situationally at least, came force the opposition quarterbacks to get rid of the ball in a hurry.

To say that Kentucky had the worst coverage unit ever is hyperbole, but the inability of the Wildcats specialists to stop opposition returners did cause the team points and field position in 2014. UK allowed 22.5 yards per kick return (100th in FBS) and 12.7 yards per punt return (11th in FBS) along with four combined return touchdowns. The hope is that better recruiting and depth at other positions will lead to more consistently solid special teams play. If this does not happen then the Wildcats will be playing at a field position disadvantage again this fall.

Prediction: Kentucky stated out last season 5-1, before falling apart with a 0-6 finish. Stoops is in the pivotal year three at the program and money has been thrown at him, his coaches and the facilities to make Kentucky more than just a basketball school. Kentucky has pulled in three top-40 recruiting classes over the past three years, so the talent is there. This program is where Vandy was just before James Franklin broke through the glass ceiling. Beating Kentucky may be just the impetus Derek Mason needs to start Vandy back to where they were two years ago.

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