The first weeks of the college football season painted quite a picture of Kentucky’s final four opponents. Coming off a bye week, how does it hold up for the rest of UK’s slate?
One need not even look past UK to quickly realize how outside expectations can be constantly re-examined. Kentucky lost its top returning defensive back, Davonte Robinson, before fall camp got underway and its starting quarterback, Terry Wilson, to a season-ending injury just seven quarters into the season. Wilson’s backup, Sawyer Smith, declined week to week as his own injuries mounted. The roller-coaster ride has continued with Lynn Bowden, whose play so far has featured more peaks than valleys. At this juncture, expecting UK to win out isn’t as wild a notion as it appeared less than a month ago.
The Cats’ “reality” could change as swiftly as Saturday, as could that of any of the following teams. For now, though, let’s see how they compare to what we thought they were early on.
Expectation: Even with Wilson’s injury still fresh in fans’ minds, the Volunteers looked ripe for the picking the first month of the season. They dropped their season opener at home to Georgia State, a Sun Belt Conference team that itself has since lost twice — an eye-popping 57-10 defeat to Western Michigan (5-4 headed into the weekend) and a more explicable double-overtime loss to Texas State. BYU, a four-time loser itself, nipped the Vols at home in week two, and lopsided losses to Florida and Georgia did nothing to help their case.
Reality: UT improved its perception with a surprise smackdown of South Carolina. This season Tennessee is, in a way, the orange equivalent of Kentucky: both have two conference wins, have had to navigate quarterback ordeals and have yet to win on the road. The differences are that UK doesn’t have the burden of positive history weighing it down, and the Cats in games against Southeastern Conference elites have fared far better. On the flip side, Tennessee’s two SEC victories were against foes that UK couldn’t figure out. This is probably more of a toss-up than it appeared it might be in September, but Kentucky has every reason to be confident.
Expectation: Easy to pencil in as an also-ran most seasons, Vanderbilt lived up to that billing and came up lame out of the gate, dropping its first three games by wide margins. A 24-18 win over Northern Illinois didn’t impress in the moment and has not been polished by the performance of the Mid-American Conference team since.
Reality: Outside of a shocking 21-14 win over Missouri the week before UK handled the Tigers, Vanderbilt hasn’t done much this season to earn the respect of its SEC peers. The Commodores are 1-4 in conference play and need to win four of their final five games to qualify for their third bowl trip in four years. Kentucky could end any hope for a winter game, and should.
Expectation: It’s an FCS team, and should be beaten regardless of circumstances.
Reality: It’s an FCS team, and should be beaten regardless of circumstances.
Expectation: Kentucky in the preseason was favored by ESPN’s Football Power Index to win five games, the last being over a Louisville team coming off a 2-10 campaign. The Cardinals, with many of the same players, so far have exceeded their own preseason FPI and need just one victory to be bowl eligible in Scott Satterfield’s first season guiding the program. They played better than expected in a Monday night matchup with Notre Dame to kick off 2019 and against like competition since have won more than not.
Reality: If Tennessee isn’t the toughest opponent left on Kentucky’s schedule, then Louisville is. The case for Louisville, of course, is based in part on the “throw the records” out mantra that comes along with rivalry games. One would think being in Lexington might help the Cats, who are still favored, but home-field advantage hasn’t proved to be a difference-maker in this series. As recently as two weeks ago it seemed this year’s battle could be one for a bowl bid; it’s more likely that it will instead be one for bowl quality. Three of the Cards’ final four games are on the road, though, so that could make for a wrinkle.
Tennessee at Kentucky
7:30 p.m. Saturday (SEC Network)