LEXINGTON, Ky. — It’s a series that dates back to 1896, and on Saturday one team will earn the temporary edge.
Kentucky (2-3, 1-2 SEC) and Vanderbilt (2-3, 0-2 SEC) are deadlocked at 42 wins apiece and four ties, but much more than that will be in the balance at 4 p.m. Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium.
The Wildcats have a chance to even their record, and any hopes of a 6-6 season will be reliant on beating the Commodores.
Adam Sparks covers Vanderbilt for The Tennessean. We caught up with Adam for a Q&A on the Commodores and how he expects Saturday to play out.
Mussatto: Kentucky players are talking about this game as must-win. Is there a similar pressure Saturday for Vanderbilt?
Sparks: I hesitate to use the term must-win this early in the season, especially since it’s conditional on what the team’s goal is. However, if Vanderbilt wants to make a bowl, then this is pretty close to must-win. Otherwise, the Commodores will have to pile up some upsets to get to the postseason. So yeah, it’s pretty close to a must-win.
Mussatto: Vanderbilt has won four out of the last five against Kentucky. Are the Commodores drawing confidence from that?
Sparks: I don’t think the overall series is on the mind of these Vanderbilt players, but last year’s victory certainly is. The Commodores have only two SEC wins in Derek Mason’s tenure, and one of those came against Kentucky last season. That game also was a low-scoring, low-turnover, defensive struggle where Vanderbilt ran the ball well enough and passed it well in the red zone. The recipe is similar for this one.
Mussatto: When Vanderbilt isn’t handing it to Ralph Webb, who’s another player to watch in this offense?
Sparks: Freshman wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb leads Vanderbilt with 14 receptions for 189 yards. He’s not setting any records yet, but Lipscomb has been the primary target for third-down and red-zone passes. And Vanderbilt has tried desperately to connect with him on a deep ball because he’s shown an ability to get open downfield.
Mussatto: What’s been the key for Vanderbilt’s defense?
Sparks: Vanderbilt’s defensive numbers weren’t very good against nonconference foes, mostly because of the eclectic offenses it faced. Middle Tennessee State and Western Kentucky ran different versions of the spread offense (and WKU mixed in some pro style), and then Georgia Tech has a triple-option attack. Take those games out of the equation and Vanderbilt gave up only 13 points in both SEC games, losses to South Carolina and Florida. With that in mind, the Commodores are starting to get back in the defensive groove that defined them last season. When Vanderbilt is playing well defensively, it has good pursuit to the ball, led by rangy linebacker Zach Cunningham. Vandy also is among the best in the nation in forcing fumbles and red-zone defense.
Mussatto: How do you see Saturday playing out?
Sparks: I’m picking Vanderbilt to win 28-26. I think it’ll be close either way. I see a reasonable recipe for a Vanderbilt victory in what Kentucky struggles with. The Wildcats have played poor defense on third down, and they’ve committed way too many turnovers. Vanderbilt doesn’t have enough offensive firepower to score consistently, so it needs help extending drives with third-down conversions and turnovers for better field position. If UK gives the Commodores both, Ralph Webb should have a big day, and Vandy wins time of possession and perhaps the game, by a small margin. Conversely, if Kentucky can get a lead early, Vanderbilt’s offense is not built well to rally — despite the fact that it came back at WKU for an OT win.