LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky survived its road trip to Tuscaloosa, Ala., and the Wildcats reward is a much friendlier matchup against Vanderbilt on Saturday.
Kentucky (2-3, 1-2 SEC) and Vanderbilt (2-3, 0-2 SEC) present an even matchup on paper with a tied season and all-time record — 42 wins for the Wildcats, 42 for the Commodores and four ties.
The loser will be buried at the bottom of the SEC East standings and if anything is a must-win for Mark Stoops and his staff, this is it. The game kicks off at 4 p.m. ET Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium.
Here are five things to watch:
Williams vs. Webb
The game features two of the conferences best running backs in Kentucky’s Boom Williams and Vanderbilt’s Ralph Webb.
No one in college football has more carries than Webb’s 118, and his 582 yards lead all SEC running backs. While Webb’s hard-nosed mentality wears down a defense, William’s big-play capability presents another style of back. Williams averages 7.25 yards per carry compared to Webb’s 4.93.
Kentucky and Vanderbilt are ranked 12th and 14th in passing yards per game in the conference. That might translate to a lot of touches for Williams, Webb and the other running backs Saturday.
Defense tries for three straight
The Wildcats held South Carolina to 10 points two weeks ago, and while last Saturday’s defensive job at Alabama won’t be confused with dominance, Kentucky held Alabama to its lowest point total of the season.
The last two efforts for Kentucky’s defense look even better when held next to the 44, 45 and 42 points the Wildcats surrendered in their first three games. Coach Mark Stoops said the difference on defense during the last two games has been, “night and day” compared to the start of the season.
Kentucky has a chance to continue the improved play with Vanderbilt coming to town. The Commodores rank last or second to last in the SEC in rushing yards, passing yards, total yards, yards per play and yards per game.
Battle for carries
As mentioned earlier, Williams is the Wildcats most dynamic running back, but it’ll be interesting to see how the backfield shapes up Saturday.
Carries were divided evenly between Williams, senior Jojo Kemp and freshman Benny Snell at Alabama, but Kentucky’s approach at running back is ever evolving.
Snell was nowhere to be found for the first two games before exploding for four scores against New Mexico State and carrying Kentucky on a game winning drive against South Carolina. Kemp has been the least used back — just 27 touches compared to Snell’s 41 and Williams’ 67. Williams leads the backfield but is used in a much different way than Snell.
Kentucky’s coaches don’t see it as a conundrum. Look for all three to get their snaps Saturday.
Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers
Kentucky’s charity has caught up with them.
The Wildcats have committed 14 turnovers, bad enough for 126th in the FBS. Their turnover margin is -7 while Vanderbilt’s margin is on the plus side at 3.
Junior QB Stephen Johnson fumbled three times at Alabama — two were lost and one was returned for a 55-yard score. He’ll be making his third start Saturday and a big key in controlling the game will be keeping hold of the ball.
“We stress it, we coach it,” Stoops said Monday. “As you know – we’ve already been down that road – but during that stretch when we were turning it over and not playing good defense that’s a recipe to lose to anybody. If we get those things corrected and play like we’re doing and keep on improving then we can play with anybody.”
A game Kentucky needs
It’s a chance for the Wildcats to level their record, keep the slightest of hopes for a bowl game and take some pressure off their head coach.
Vanderbilt has beaten Kentucky four out of the last five years and Stoops is 1-2 against the Commodores. A loss Saturday would be a punch to the state of the program and a surefire way to give the fanbase another reason to slip away.