To stay in the race, you can’t stub your toe.
If you’re Kentucky, tied for first place in the loss column of the SEC East, you can’t lose as an 11-point favorite at home to Vanderbilt in Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. kickoff at Kroger Field. The SEC Network has the telecast.
Not that Vanderbilt will be easy pickings. The Commodores are 3-4 overall and 0-3 in the league, but the men of Derek Mason have had their moments. Vandy stuck a scare into now fourth-ranked Notre Dame in South Bend before falling 22-17 to the Irish. The Commodores jumped out to a 21-3 second-quarter lead over Florida last week in Nashville before losing 37-27 to the Gators.
One reason behind that loss was the loss of running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn to a leg injury in the second quarter. Before that, the junior had gained 56 rushing yards on just seven carries, thanks in large part to a 43-yard burst. He also turned a screen pass from quarterback Kyle Shurmur into a 75-yard touchdown that gave the ‘Dores a 14-3 lead in the second quarter.
“He’s explosive,” said UK Coach Mark Stoops this week of the Nashville native who is expected to play Saturday night.
Still, Kentucky is a double-digit favorite for a reason. The Cats are 5-1 overall and 3-1 in the league. They are ranked 14th in the latest AP Top 25. They are fourth nationally in scoring defense (13.8 points per game) and 11th in total defense (304.8 yards per game). Last time out, despite a power outage on offense (178 total yards), they extended Texas A&M to overtime in College Station before losing 20-14.
Better yet, they are hanging with the big boys. Technically, Georgia and Florida lead the SEC East with 4-1 records. Both the Bulldogs and Gators are off Saturday to rest up for their annual renewal of the “World’s Largest Cocktail Party” in Jacksonville next week. One or the other will have two league defeats come the morning of Oct. 28.
As you may remember, Kentucky has already beaten Florida. Thanks to that obstacle-clearing 27-16 triumph in Gainesville back on Sept. 8, UK holds the tiebreaker advantage over the Gators. And Stoops’ club has a possible date with destiny come Nov. 3 when Georgia lands in Lexington.
That remains true if Kentucky can take care of business against Vanderbilt and record a road win next Saturday at Missouri. And the Cats realize what’s at stake. Center Drake Jackson said this week he’d be less than truthful if he denied being aware of the possibilities. He labeled it motivation.
UK’s key against Vanderbilt? Getting the offensive engine engaged again tops the checklist. Eddie Gran’s attack rushed for 232 yards in last year’s 44-21 win over the ‘Dores in Music City. And Vanderbilt enters this game ranked 95th nationally in run defense, giving up 183.3 yards per game.
Bottom line: Despite the loss in College Station, Kentucky is right where it needs to be, in the thick of the division race, with the program’s first trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game within the realm of possibility. To keep running with the big dogs, it can’t lose a game it should win.