The SEC season has been filled with little surprises. Many of those have been negative, as league stalwarts like Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee have already played themselves out of the championship race.
But on the "little positive" side are two teams facing off today. Kentucky, at 5-4, has already over-achieved by most standards. At 3-3 in the SEC, UK is third in the East, can finish as high as second -- just behind Florida -- if they can win today and then beat now-#2 Tennessee.
Vanderbilt also has some positives to look at on their side of the ledger. Thought only 1-5 in the SEC, Vandy is 4-6 overall. Wins over UK and UT would likely put Vanderbilt into their first bowl game in 23 seasons.
Despite the disparate in-conference records, UK is just a 1.5 point favorite while playing at home. That's largely because Vanderbilt has become one of the most prolific offenses in the SEC, while Kentucky's defense ranks among the worst.
The two teams have four common opponents thus far. Both teams defeated Georgia, and both lost to South Carolina. Vandy dominated Ole Miss but managed to lose anyway; UK beat Ole Miss 31-14. VU, though, almost beat Florida in Nashville, while the Gators blew out UK 26-7.
Kentucky can score points, though. QB Andre Woodson has put up seventh 200-yard passing games against Georgia, and ranks 19th in the nation in passing yards per game. In addition, the Wildcats feature perhaps the SEC's best (and certainly most unsung) running backs in Rafael Little.
Little may do it all for Kentucky on the ground, but Vandy QB Chris Nickson and running backs Cassen Jackson-Garrison and Jared Hawkins do it better. The VU running game has amassed almost twice as much yardage per game.
And Nickson has certainly come into his own in the pocket. He was named SEC Offensive Player of the Week for his lights-out performance against Duke. Wideout Earl Bennett, after his 13-reception game versus Florida, has now amassed 910 total receiving yards for the season -- seventh most in school history. The sophomore had originally committed to UK before renegging at the last minute to sign with VU.
VU OFFENSE VS. UK DEFENSE:
Mike Rapp, VandySports.com publisher: It's supposed to be a cold and rainy day today in Lexington, which will probably slow both offenses down. Still, you have to like what Nickson and company have been able to accomplish over the past two weeks. UK's run defense, and really their entire defense, is one of the most porous in the league. I don't see that changing today.
Chris Lee, VandySports.com publisher: I like the matchups here. Kentucky hasn't done much slowing anyone down, and Nickson and the Commodore offense are hitting stride. Nickson and Bennett should have a field day. The key for Vandy will be handling third-and-short situations--which has been a big concern--and holding on to the ball, which has not been much of an issue of late. I think Nickson has his first 300-yard passing day in Lexington, the the 'Cats won't slow the 'Dores down often.
Andrew Kerr, VandySports.com contributing writer and former VU football coach: Kentucky's defense is at the bottom of the league in most categories except one critically important one: turnovers. Vanderbilt's offense is much improved in the passing game of late so they should be able to move the ball up and down the field, however they must hang onto the ball, especially in key red zone opportunities. If they hang onto the ball this one could look like the Duke game, if they come out and play sloppy it could very easily be like the Ole Miss game.
Tommy Crockett, VandySports.com board moderator (Reno, NV): The Kentucky defense is, er… uh … shall we say not particularly good? Okay, everybody points to their five wins and three conference wins, but this defense has given up 266 points to their offense's 227. Opponents have racked up 195 first downs against this defense. They're giving up an average of 265 yards per game in the passing game. With Bennett on fire right now and the receiving corps showing good hands and an excellent grasp of the routes, Nickson should be able to eat up yardage with his feet and arm in Lexington.
The UK defense is almost as weak against the run. If Vandy executes as well as they have recently I wouldn't be surprised to see Vanderbilt rack up more than 400 yards.
UK OFFENSE VS. VU DEFENSE:
MR: It bears repeating that VU's defense has been the biggest surprise this season. But, their defense will get its biggest test of the year today against Woodson and Little. UK's Woodson has the #1 offense in the league, gaining 250.1 yards per game. VU gave up a huge number of 15+ yard plays against what is a vanilla Florida offense, including several big third and longs. I'd like to believe that will change today...but I can't predict it. UK will score some points today.
CL: Agreed. UK's offense has gelled of late, and the return of Little only helps. The 'Dores need to contain Little and force a few turnovers, but I think UK will also move the ball effectively and set up a high-scoring game.
AK: Woodson has been on a tear lately. He is completing nearly 60% of his passes, can run when he needs to, and has protected the ball well of late. Vanderbilt's defense has continued to stay healthy and played with great intensity last week against a talented Florida team. The defense will need to stay aggressive and not give Woodson time to throw.
TC: With a cast of less than stellar running backs hauling the rock I suspect UK will have as much trouble gaining ground overland as they've shown all season. The Vanderbilt defensive line will contain the Wildcat rushing game. But in contrast, Woodson can and will throw the pigskin all over the field. The Cats love to spread the ball around and Burton and Lyons make every catch count with more than first down yardage on average per catch.
It does look as though Langford and Gatewood will be at full speed for this game. Vandy must pressure Woodson and make sure the defense doesn't break. I suspect there will be plenty of passing yardage for the Wildcats unfortunately for the Commodores. Not so much from a talent standpoint, but from the coverage schemes Coach Fowler employs.
MR: Both teams versus the weather. Vanderbilt is tied for the SEC lead in turnovers gained, and near the top in points scored off of turnovers, but ranks last in yards per drive. If you're looking at player-to-player, it's going to be UK wideout Keenan Burton against whichever corner Fowler mixes and matches onto him. The rain may mean more short routes, and VU's 10-yard cushion means UK will look to dink and dunk VU into oblivion. Tackling is key for VU. Strong safety Langford may have to save the day today more often than not.
CL: Pick any special teams matchup. UK's good here, while Vandy's struggled of late. If the Commodores just play UK even here, chances for a win are good.
AK: Vanderbilt defensive end [DB]Curtis Gatewood[/DB] has become a force on the defensive line for Vanderbilt and is making a strong case for all-conference honors with his relentless play. If he and his teammates are able to get consistent pressure on Woodson and not allow him to make plays outside the pocket, Vanderbilt should win by a healthy margin.
TC: Gatewood and Woodson and Kennan Burton matched up against, most probably, [DB]Dalron Spead[/DB] seem to leap to mind as the match-ups to watch.
VANDY WINS IF...
MR: VU can have just a "good" day on both sides of the ball, and keep Little from looking like Walter Payton. It won't be easy, but in wet and cold conditions, the odds for VU just went up. I must add, though, that anything resembling last week's punting disaster, and you can put this one in the books for Kentucky.
CL: They come out ahead or even in the turnover battle, and there are no special teams breakdowns.
AK: They do not allow special teams breaks downs and are able to take advantage of red zone scoring opportunities. Early on, this means Vanderbilt will need touchdowns instead of field goals and it can ill afford to spot a fired-up UK team any early points like the last week against the Gators when a blocked punt led to an early 8-0 lead.
TC: Vandy needs to grind out yardage on the ground and continue getting the most from their short passing game to keep the ball out of the Wildcat's offensive hands. If Vandy can shorten the game by ball control they can win this game in a large fashion. Lewis, Fagan, Caldwell and Moore must contain the UK receivers and limit first downs.
UK WINS IF...
MR: See above. Sloppy tackling and porous punt blocking means the 'Cats are bowl bound...and VU will be playing for pride again against UT.
CL: UK forces Nickson into turnovers, and dominates VU on special teams. Remember, he 'Cats had two special teams TD's in Nashville last year.
AK: They are able to hit some big plays on offense and do not turn the ball over.
TC: Kentucky wins if their defense steps ups and their special teams continue to harass and limit those little extra opportunities. Woodson has become an excellent Quarterback so if UK can rack up five to eight more first downs than the Commodores they could hold home field advantage and win their second consecutive SEC tilt.
WHAT'S AT STAKE:
MR: Oddly, the uneventful loss to UF seems to have done little to dampen enthusiasm that maybe, just maybe, VU could go bowling this year. A win today would be VU's sixth road win in their past 11 games, and would set up the biggest match-up versus archrival Tennessee in decades.
CL: Bowl bids for each team, and for Vandy, a chance to show that the turnaround talk has some merit.
AK: Credibility, I won't say respect because that word is so over-used in sports and doesn't really apply here for because neither team will gain a lot of respect by beating the other. No, a win here for either team simply establishes their credibility within the SEC East and would keep momentum going for two programs that are fighting and scraping as best they can to show improvement in their programs.
TC: How could I possibly put it better than Coach Brooks put it at his SEC Coaches Press conference excerpt from Nov 8th: "A win over Vanderbilt would be great. It's a huge game for us, and we're playing a really good team. For us, we would be able to get our fourth SEC win and climb up the SEC standings, which I think would be even better for our program than going to a bowl game. For as long as I can remember Kentucky has either finished fifth or sixth in this division, so it would be huge for our program to get those four conference wins."
MR: Vandy wins big, 35-21
CL: Vanderbilt 38, Kentucky 30
AK: Vanderbilt: 28, Kentucky 24
TC: Vanderbilt 30 Kentucky 25