It’s almost football time in the Bluegrass! Here are some final thoughts and predictions about how Kentucky’s SEC opener at Vanderbilt might play out at FirstBank Stadium on Saturday.
Coaches are never shy about reminding fans and reporters that each team is different and previous seasons have little bearing on current teams. In the era of the transfer portal that may be more true than ever.
Avenging the 2022 loss to Vanderbilt, which snapped the Commodores’ 26-game SEC losing streak, seems like a clear source of motivation for Kentucky this week, but the two teams look little like last season.
Kentucky has 10 transfers on its two-deep depth chart. Vanderbilt’s leading rusher from the 2022 game, Ray Davis, now plays for UK. The dual-threat quarterback who troubled UK’s defense so much last season now plays at Mississippi State.
But the Kentucky players who were on the team a year ago for one of the most disappointing losses of the Mark Stoops era have probably shared the sting of that defeat with their new teammates this week.
“I think I hate losing more than I love winning, but it’s like after a loss you just think about, what’s that one play where I could have tried harder?” sophomore defensive tackle Deone Walker said. “What’s that one play where I could have done more, pushed our team more, where I could have boosted our morale up? I’m just trying to make sure I don’t have those thoughts.”
The plan at center
After Kentucky’s win over Akron that featured multiple bad snaps, Stoops and offensive coordinator Liam Coen said they would consider other options at center, but Jager Burton looks set to start at the position again this week.
“The (practice) reps haven’t really changed much,” offensive line coach Zach Yenser said. “We’ve got guys rotating in and out. We get a lot of pre-practice snaps, we get a lot of post-practice snaps and then we get as many live reps with guys as we can.”
Like always, right guard Eli Cox, who started at center last season, has received practice reps at center this week along with Burton, backup Tanner Bowles and freshman Koby Keenum. Keenum is still splitting practice time between the scout team and offense, so he does not appear ready to play in games.
Even if Burton starts as expected, Kentucky coaches will probably not hesitate to make a change if the snaps are a problem again.
“There’s nobody that feels worse than him,” Yenser said. “You’ve just kind of got to put your arm around him, ‘Dude, you can’t let it happen again.’ He was a little shook at halftime. You could just feel it. It’s like, ‘Dude, calm down, relax, you’re fine. You’re athletic enough.’ That’s what I’ve got to tell him: Slow down. He’s always trying to hit the turbo button and just be so fast.
“I’m like, ‘Dude, you’re athletic enough. Snap first, get to your block.’ I was really proud of him bouncing back in the second half. … That’s what I told him: ‘You’ve been putting a lot of good stuff on tape postsnap.’ We’ve just got to continue with the snaps.”
Stoops expressed confidence in his team’s health situation heading into its SEC opener during his last news conference of the week Thursday, but he admitted the group is not 100%. Left guard Kenneth Horsey and tight end Josh Kattus are players to watch for in pregame warm-ups. Horsey has missed the last two games with a leg injury. Kattus left the win over Akron early after catching his first career touchdown.
Kentucky 35, Vanderbilt 17
There’s no reason to overthink this. Yes, Kentucky has been inconsistent through three games and will need to post significant improvements in some areas to beat SEC teams, but Vanderbilt has struggled to contain opponents’ passing games this season. That’s one area where the Wildcats should find success, even if the problems from the first three games are not resolved.
MVP: Ray Davis
Playing against his former team, Davis will need to keep his emotions in check and avoid trying to do too much, but he has proven capable of contributing in a variety of ways to Kentucky’s offense already. Davis ranks sixth in the SEC in all-purpose yards per game (126.3). It would be little surprise to see him record a receiving and rushing touchdown.
Kentucky is favored by 13.5 points. Close games are generally the norm for UK in SEC play. The last time the Wildcats beat an SEC opponent by more than 13.5 points was UK’s last game at Vanderbilt on Nov. 13, 2021. The last four games in the series in Lexington have been decided by no more than seven points, but the last three games in Nashville were all UK wins by at least 17 points.
THE LAST WORD
Davis on facing his former teammates:
“We’ve always said the what ifs. What if this was live? What if this was a live scrimmage? What if I could tackle Ray? All that stuff. So, we finally get to take off the what ifs and we finally get to put, ‘it was.’ It was live. After Saturday, we’ll get to have that conversation. The best man wins. They’ll finally get the opportunity to tackle me and talk all the smack that they want. I’ll have the ability to do the same, but it’s a lot of love for those guys. I love them, but when Saturday comes that love is gone and I’m trying to go get a W, trying to make history over there and beat them.”