What now appears right and wrong about our preseason look at a critical game.
What's at Stake: A bowl berth. It's easy to count to five wins for Kentucky before Nov. 14, and only slightly harder for Vanderbilt.
Ignore that crater where the credibility of my preseason prognostication used to be. If by "only slightly harder for Vanderbilt" I meant the difference between five games and two, then I was spot on. Otherwise, blech. My entire reason for having this as one of the Ten Games That Will Shape the SEC is redeemed only by the fact that Kentucky might go to a bowl game if it wins. The Vanderbilt angle is dead.
Where It Falls on Vanderbilt's Schedule: It's the next-to-last game of the season, obviously, coming right after the Dores travel to Gainesville for what should be a severe thrashing. One possible concern: It will mark the 11th straight week of football for Vanderbilt, who will play their schedule all the way through without a bye. Any nagging injuries could play a major role.
I think it is safe to assume that injuries will not play a major role in this one. Even with Vanderbilt banged up in some respects, I almost expect to hear Ashokan Farewell playing and David McCullough narrating an infimary scene whenever news breaks of another Kentucky injury.
What Will Decide the Game This Year: Not offense. The Wildcats failed to rank higher than 81st nationally in any major offensive category (rush offense, pass efficiency offense, pass offense, total offense); Vanderbilt ranked 73rd in one (rushing) and 110th or worse in the other three. Granted, both teams have reasons to believe that their offenses will be better this year, but not so much better than they'll surpass the 55 combined points from the 2008 game by a wide margin. Defense and a turnover here or there will likely be the difference.
Finally -- something I can stand beside. Anyone honestly think that we're going to be watching a shootout on Saturday? Vanderbil ranks 102nd in the nation in total offense, while Kentucky comes in at 85th. The defenses are relatively mediocre -- 54th and 59th respectively -- but they're elite compared to the offenses.
Vanderbilt Will Probably Win If ... The QB situation has settled down enough to keep the offense from completely imploding, the long schedule doesn't leave the team battered and the returning starters on defense play up to last year's standards.
Well, Larry Smith is out after a season-ending injury against Georgia Tech, so that pretty much wipes out the first two. And see above for the defensive stats. Another home run!
Kentucky Will Probably Win If ... The relative inexperience of the team doesn't cause problems, the QB situation has settled down enough to keep the offense from totally imploding and D.J. Moore doesn't find some way to regain his college eligibility.
That's good as far as it goes, but the quarterback situation hasn't really settled down all that much after Mike Hartline was injured earlier this year. No signs of D.J. Moore, though, so I've got that going for me.
Conclusion: This is a difficult game to call, in part because both teams have a number of question marks. Quite frankly, Vanderbilt owes a great deal of its success in 2008 to luck, though the Kentucky game might have been their most "honest" victory. We will hopefully have a better idea by November about who has the edge. But if this season resembles the past one for both teams, even that is a dubious notion.
You'd have to give Kentucky the advantage now, if for no other reason that Vanderbilt is so bad on offense that it's unlikely their defense can bail them out against an SEC team. But look at the full post up to this point and ask yourself this question: What do I know?