VANDERBILT (5-4, 3-3) VS. KENTUCKY (6-4, 2-4)
8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 15, 2008
Commonwealth Stadium, Lexington, Ky.
HOW VANDERBILT CAN WIN
• Get first downs and keep the defense off the field.
• Have Chris Nickson circa 2006 or Sept. 2008 show up to play.
• Make TE Brandon Barden a frequent target and have a couple of wide receivers step up (Jamie Graham's injured).
• Score first (what's that like?).
• Play to win. Don't come out in the first quarter thinking you'll score a touchdown in the fourth quarter to win 7-3. Did you the Cats rolling up and down the field against Georgia?
• Rattle the freshman quarterback.
• Get a couple of turnovers, and even take one to the house.
• Hang onto the ball and avoid special teams mishaps.
HOW KENTUCKY CAN WIN
• Take a lead and then smash the Commodores in the mouth, like Miss State did.
• Protect Randall Cobb long enough for him to spring loose and turn upfield.
• Manhandle Vanderbilt runners.
• Avoid turnovers and special teams gaffes.
That's enough of how Kentucky can win. I think the freshman quarterback, Randall "Don't Call Me Tex" Cobb, is going to give the Commodores big problems. Remember what Miss State's Tyson Lee did to us? I'm convinced his run on third-and-long that led to State's go-ahead touchdown was the difference in that game — and maybe our whole season.
Our five wins have come against traditional drop-back passers, Auburn's Chris Todd, Ole Miss' Jevan Snead, Rice's Chase Clement, South Carolina's Chris Smelley and Miami's Orville Redenbacher or whatever his name was.
We even gave Matthew Stafford some trouble and had the vastly superior Georgia Bulldogs on the ropes late in the game.
But Tyson Lee, Duke's Thaddeus Lewis and of course Florida's Tim Tebow gave the Commodores fits. Tebow's in a different league from everybody else on earth so we'll just forget about him.
I can't forget about Tyson Lee — or Randall Cobb. Like Lee, Cobb is under 6 feet and weighs less than 190. He was a highly regarded prep defensive back, which explains why he went to Kentucky, where Rich Brooks will actually get the ball in the hands of his best athletes, and fast. (I'm not going to mention Larry Smith here, though I'd like to.)
In his first start, in a game against Miss State that was eerily similar to the Commodores' slugfest in Starkville, Cobb shared duties with Mike Hartline and was 7-13 through the air for 56 yards and a touchdown and an interception. He also carried 12 times for 31 yards and a touchdown.
The next week, against Georgia in Lexington, Cobb was given the keys to the offense and rang up 82 yards and three big touchdowns on 18 carries. He was also 12-20 for 105 yards and a freaky interception by a Bulldog lineman to end the game. In all, the Cats scored a whopping 38 points against the Bulldogs, who'd held the Commodores to 14 (but who hasn't?).
The Wildcats can't pass, but they can run, and Tony Dixon's a solid running back. The defense is hard-nosed, though it'll drop a notch if all-star cornerback Trevard Lindley can't overcome injury in time for Saturday's game. The special teams are shaky, too.
South Carolina: Vanderbilt won 24-17 at home, Kentucky lost 24-14 at home
Florida: Vanderbilt lost 42-14 at home, Kentucky lost 63-5 on the road
Miss State: Vanderbilt lost 17-14 on the road, Kentucky won 14-13 on the road
Georgia: Vanderbilt lost 24-14 on the road, Kentucky lost 42-38 at home
SUMMARY: On paper, these teams look pretty even, but Kentucky's offense is playing better. The Commodores haven't scored more than 14 points in five games. Oh, and the temperature will be dropping near freezing with possible rain, sleet and snow.
The Wildcats are about a 4-point favorite. If I was a gambling man and not a Vanderbilt fan, I'd take it in a heartbeat. Kentucky has lost to four of the five best teams in the SEC (Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina) and did what it took to squeak out wins over Arkansas and Miss State. Vanderbilt barely showed up to play Miss State and Duke.
Can the Commodores win in gloomy Lexington? Absolutely. It'll take big plays on defense, smart special teams play, crafty playcalling, and a gutsy, mistake-free performance by the man at the helm, probably Chris Nickson. Nickson can forge his legacy by leading the Commodores to victory on Saturday and then again against Tennessee and Wake Forest. It's possible that he — and we — return to our earlier season form. History's not on our side, of course, but this is all about getting over the hump, getting the monkey off our back, whatever you want to call it.
I believe it can happen. But for now I'm calling it Kentucky 24-10.