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November 11, 2011

UK back in bowl contention as Cats face Vandy

KENTUCKY at VANDERBILT
Site: Vanderbilt Stadium, Nashville, Tenn. (39,790)
Game time: 12:21 p.m.
Coaches: Joker Phillips, Kentucky (10-12 overall, second year at UK and overall, 1-0 against Vanderbilt), James Franklin, Vanderbilt (4-5 overall, first year at Vanderbilt and overall)
Series history: Kentucky leads 27-13-1
Depth charts: Kentucky, Vanderbilt
TV: SEC Network
Radio: UK IMG Sports Network, XM 201, Sirius 217 (Sirius Premier package), radio stream at UKathletics.com
Internet video stream: ESPN3.com

Last time
Kentucky's seniors went out in style in their final game at Commonwealth Stadium with a 38-20 win over Vanderbilt to become bowl eligible. The Commodores held a 13-10 halftime lead before senior defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin rallied the Wildcats in the locker room. Derrick Locke finished with 145 rushing yards and two scores while Randall Cobb had 170 rushing yards and two touchdowns of his own.

Kentucky will win if?
Believe it or not, Vanderbilt represents a significant step up in competition from Ole Miss, and might even be better than Mississippi State. There's some talent here, but it's the experience of a massive senior that sets Vanderbilt apart. This is a solid football team that has been competitive in every game this year and doesn't get rattled by one or two plays. It's going to take a consistent effort to win.

Maxwell Smith showed marked improvement from earlier in the season to the Mississippi State game and improved again going into the Ole Miss game. This is the point in his career where he improves every day in practice, and he'll have to take another step to earn a road win. He'll also have to make good decisions all day, something he was able to do against the Rebels. Vanderbilt is fifth in the nation in interceptions, with 15, and the secondary must be hungry for a few more against a true freshman. Smith did struggle changing plays at the line last week, burning a few timeouts in the process. That can't happen this week.

Getting Raymond Sanders back figures to give UK its best depth at tailback in some time, and they'll try to limit how much the Commodore offense sees the field. Danny Trevathan has been spectacular in recent weeks and the rest of the defense has elevated its play as well. They forced turnovers against Mississippi State and held firm against Ole Miss even in the red zone. Those were exactly the kind of performances we figured we'd see when the offense started helping them out, and exactly the kind of performance that will be needed Saturday.

Vanderbilt will win if?

That massive senior class in Nashville will be playing their final home game on Saturday, and there's nothing they'd like more than to end their careers with a win. Even though Vanderbilt stands a better chance than Kentucky of making a bowl game if they lose Saturday, this is still a big chance for the program to make a statement. A home loss to Kentucky would leave a lot of doubt about how far the program has come this season and whether all those close losses actually meant anything.

Jordan Rodgers is the man leading the renaissance for Vanderbilt, and he has a bundle of playmakers around him with gamebreaking ability. The Wildcats have been vulnerable to big plays all season, and this will be a big test to see how much they've improved. Even against Mississippi State and Ole Miss, the defense struggled at times. Rodgers also isn't going to be flustered easily, and putting pressure on him will be that much more difficult with Ridge Wilson not making the trip.

James Franklin has had enough near-misses in his first season as a head coach. He'll take that experience and learn from it - and maybe their kicker will pull through this time. This game probably won't decide who ends up in last place in the East (Tennessee has its own problems), but these are still two programs trying to show the league what they're about. Kentucky wants a second straight conference win to get back on track, while Vanderbilt is still building for the future. It'll be a demoralizing loss for one of these teams.

Cats Illustrated staff predictions:

Ben Jones, Staff Writer: Vanderbilt 30, Kentucky 23
Both sides are going to be scratching and clawing for a win in this one, because the loser is really behind the eight-ball in the bowl picture. It's going to be a battle to the end and even though Maxwell Smith showed his fourth-quarter moxie last week, a second outburst might be too much to ask. Nashville has been kind to Kentucky in recent years, but that streak will end on Saturday.

Brett Dawson, Publisher: Vanderbilt 21, Kentucky 17
What to make of this Maxwell Smith effect? As bad - and freshmanlike - as Smith looked early in the season, he's maturing before our eyes. He's provided an undeniable spark for the Wildcats since he took over for Morgan Newton in the Mississippi State game. But Smith's only win came against a sputtering Ole Miss program that fired its coach soon after the loss. Vanderbilt's better than Ole Miss. And on paper, anyway, Vanderbilt's better than Kentucky. The stakes on Saturday are fascinating. Both teams are fighting for a bowl bid (seriously!) and each probably needs this win to have any hope. It's a toss-up game, but there's something about James Franklin's preaching that this isn't "the same old Vanderbilt." I think his players believe it. That belief, and what figures to be a stronger-than-usual home-field advantage, is reason enough to give Vandy a slight edge.

Steve Jones, Recruiting Editor: Kentucky 23, Vanderbilt 20
The Cats and Commodores have the same record, but clearly Vandy has been more competitive against good teams than UK, losing close games to Florida, Arkansas and Georgia. But I feel as though UK might have hit its stride against Ole Miss and think Maxwell Smith has given the Wildcats' offense some new enthusiasm. I think the goal of maintaining its five-year bowl streak will motivate the Cats to pull what would be a fairly significant upset given that Vandy is a 13-point favorite.

T.J. Walker, Staff Writer: Vanderbilt 30, Kentucky 21
Go back to August and there's no denying many fans circled the UK at Vanderbilt as a win for the Cats, but just hours before the game UK finds itself a double-digit dog to the perennial Southeastern Conference bottom-feeder. I look at this matchup for UK as very similar to the Mississippi State game. Vandy prides itself on good defense. The Commodores and Cats have both played South Carolina and Florida, UK giving up a combined 102 points, Vandy only 47. Vanderbilt tries to run the ball on offense and I don't think the Cats will have too many issues stopping it, but like against Mississippi State, Vanderbilt might surprise UK by going to the air and targeting their trio of big wide receivers. Vandy's top three receivers are at least 6-foot-2 and over 200 pounds, which doesn't bode well for a UK secondary that has been bullied the past couple of weeks. I expect the Cats to keep it close but for the first time in a long time, Vandy is the more talented team.


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