If it were Opposite Day, Kentucky (2-3, 1-2 SEC) versus Vanderbilt (2-3, 0-2 SEC) would be one of the biggest games of the college football weekend. Outside of Lexington and Nashville, though, this contest won’t draw big ratings.
That doesn’t mean it’s not an important matchup, however — there’s a lot on the line for both teams.
Kentucky is coming off a 34-6 demolition at the hands of No. 1 Alabama. To be frank, the result was to be expected, but that’s the Wildcats’ second blowout loss against an SEC opponent this season.
A grim forecast is tempered by this next collection of details: Kentucky did beat South Carolina, 17-10, in Week 4, so Mark Stoops and his team do have a chance to pull even against SEC opponents. While that may not seem like a huge deal, it is for Stoops. He’s in his fourth season at Kentucky and is 14-27 overall. A 2-2 SEC record through four league games would be good, based on recent historical comparisons.
The leash may not be much longer for Stoops, so at this point he can use any positive momentum he can get.
Back to the bad news for Big Blue: With games against Mississippi State, Mizzou, Georgia, No. 9 Tennessee and No. 7 Louisville all still looming on the schedule, there aren’t many more games that appear to be winnable for the Wildcats. A game against Austin Peay in Lexington is really the only one that should be penciled in as a win, but even that isn’t a guarantee. Remember, Kentucky lost 44-35 to Southern Mississippi to start the season, so the level of opponent doesn’t matter when it comes to these Wildcats. They’re a very talented bunch at times, but they just can’t seem to put it together.
That’s on Stoops, and with the very realistic chance of a 3-9 season if the Wildcats can’t beat Vanderbilt, this game is essentially a must-win for Kentucky.
If that seems dire, the crazy thing is this game is even more important for Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason.
In his third season with the Commodores, Mason is 9-20. He’s 0-2 against the SEC so far this season and 2-16 against SEC opponents over his tenure with Vanderbilt. He went 0-8 against the SEC in 2015 and was able to beat Missouri and Kentucky in 2015.
Mason is known as a defensive coach and he has done a good job with Vandy’s defensive unit, but unfortunately for him that hasn’t played out in the stat books so far this season. Vanderbilt is 11th in the SEC, giving up 409.2 yards per game, and also 11th in points allowed per game with 23.6. That’s damning for a head coach who has made his mark as a defensive guru, but there is one silver lining heading into his matchup with Kentucky. The Wildcats are ranked last in the SEC in total defense (giving up 468 yards per game) and last in scoring defense (giving up 35 points per game).
Even Vanderbilt’s defensive advantage is a bit skewed, though, because it assumes the Commodores can get it done offensively against a terrible Wildcats’ defense. Unfortunately, that may not be the case, at least according to the numbers. Vanderbilt is scoring only 20.2 points per game, which is the second-worst mark in the SEC, behind only South Carolina. The Commodores are also notching only 302.4 yards per game, which is against second-worst behind the Gamecocks.
The deeper dive into the numbers is interesting, but for Mason, this is a big-picture game.
A good case can be made that Stoops should be out in Lexington no matter what happens this season, with huge upsets against Tennessee and Louisville perhaps the only (highly unrealistic) things that could save his job.
Mason, on the other hand, is still in his third year, and though that tends to be the “put up or shut up” year for most head coaches, a surge this season could earn him one more year in Nashville.
He has to show signs of actual improvement — something the program can build on. A win against an SEC opponent on the road would be a step in the right direction. Last weekend, the Commodores played No. 23 Florida tough, so they can compete. All of their games this year have been extremely close — outside of the 47-24 win over MTSU — so a case can be made that Mason and the Commodores are simply figuring out how to win.
At the very least, there’s still a way that Vanderbilt football can be spun in a positive direction, but that’s a luxury Mason will likely lose if his team loses to Kentucky.
Both head coaches are in tough spots and both schools would be justified if they decided to move on. Mason may have just a little more wiggle room, though, and that’s what makes getting a win this weekend so important for him.
He needs to hold on to that.