The real test for Kentucky football is now here after Vanderbilt win

Kentucky football moved to 4-0 on the 2023 season with a 45-28 win at Vanderbilt to open Southeastern Conference play. While the Commodores represented an uptick in quality of competition for UK, there are more difficult tests on the horizon.

Here is a closer look at what the victory means beyond the scoreboard:

Moving past 2022 failures

Nothing Kentucky does this season can fully erase the disappointment of a 7-6 2022 season that began with dreams of contending for an SEC title, but beating Vanderbilt at least helps send a message that this is a different team.

Last November, Vanderbilt handed Kentucky one of the most frustrating defeats of the Mark Stoops era in snapping its 26-game SEC losing streak at Kroger Field. Nothing went right for Kentucky that day as it became clear the Wildcats’ season-long offensive struggles could not be attributed to quarterback Will Levis’ balky foot alone.

Kentucky entered this week’s game with offensive questions again after inconsistent showings in three straight non-conference wins to open the season. Another afternoon of inconsistent play Saturday means offensive concerns continue to linger, but ensuring the 2022 embarrassment was not repeated at least builds momentum with games against Florida and Georgia looming.

Beating Vanderbilt does not ensure Kentucky will be a factor in the SEC East race or even reach a more prestigious bowl than it did last season, but it does take at least one worst-case scenario off the table.

Clarity coming in SEC East race

Whether Kentucky can factor in the SEC East race will likely be determined in the next two weeks.

Next week’s opponent, Florida, did not look like a contender for the division title entering the season, but the Gators’ upset of Tennessee has rocketed Billy Napier’s team into the top 25. If Kentucky can beat Florida for a third consecutive season, the Wildcats will head to Athens on Oct. 7 undefeated with a chance to move into the driver’s seat of the SEC East race.

While Georgia has looked vulnerable at times this season, it would still be difficult to imagine a UK win in Athens. Georgia still has to play Florida, Ole Miss and Tennessee though, so even a UK loss would not necessarily eliminate the Wildcats from the division race.

Beating Vanderbilt was only step one in making Kentucky relevant across the SEC this season, but losing would have ruined Kentucky’s hopes just as the SEC slate started. Opening SEC play against Vanderbilt for the first time since 1941 at least gives Kentucky some early momentum in conference play.

Shuffling the offensive line

Despite offensive line coach Zach Yenser telling reporters the practice reps at center had not changed much early in the week, Kentucky did flip Eli Cox and Jager Burton at right guard and center against Vanderbilt. Burton had started the first three games at center but had struggled with his snapping consistency.

Cox, who started at center a year ago, made it through the Vanderbilt game without any snapping issues. Meanwhile, Burton, who started at left guard last season, played most of the game at right guard.

Kentucky seems likely to stick with that alignment moving forward, but eventually the offensive line will need to make room for Kenneth Horsey, who has missed the last three games with a leg injury. Horsey, Kentucky’s most experienced offensive lineman, started the season at left guard, but West Virginia transfer Dylan Ray has received positive reviews for his play there in Horsey’s absence. If everyone is healthy and the staff likes Burton at right guard, Ray might move back to the bench or work into the rotation at right tackle.

Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops leads his team to the field before Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt at FirstBank Stadium in Nashville.
Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops leads his team to the field before Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt at FirstBank Stadium in Nashville.

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