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Kentucky Football: Is Vanderbilt The Most Important Game Of The Season For Kentucky?

For the players and coaches, every game is the most important game of the season because they only play one game at a time. For the fans and media, we have the luxury of always looking ahead. The most important game? Vanderbilt very well could be. Kentucky is expected to be 2-1 going into its first SEC home game of the season on September 27th.

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A win over Vanderbilt would be our first SEC victory in two years. TWO YEARS! The last time we won an SEC game was the final game of 2011 with that odd, but wonderful, win over Tennessee. I say odd because we won with a kid who had not played quarterback since high school by the name of Matt Roark. That season was also the last time we won two SEC games. We also beat Ole Miss 30-3 in Lexington.

We did not, however, beat Vanderbilt. We played them in Nashville and lost 38-8. In 2012, Vanderbilt was the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back for head coach Joker Phillips as the Commodores beat us 40-0 in Lexington in front of a crowd that amounted to a little more than 3,000.

Those days were some of the darkest days in the history of Kentucky football. Hope for the future had left the football program. Fans boycotted and a significant amount of season ticket holders let the university know that they would not be renewing their season tickets for 2013. If you'll recall, the university had also refused to approve a deal with IMG for stadium renovations in 2012.

Recruiting was going nowhere for 2013 as Kentucky was ranked 62nd in the Rivals Team Rankings at the time. Kentucky had to do something after years and years of tepid support for football. Rich Brooks retired because of broken promises. Joker Phillips was hired as a replacement after being named head coach in waiting. While Phillips was a very good offensive coordinator, he wasn't well-prepared to become a head coach for an SEC team. That 40-0 loss to Vanderbilt proved it and sealed his fate.

UK president Dr. Eli Capilouto and the UK Board of Trustees dismantled the UKAA and took control of Kentucky's athletics program. While it upset some fans, it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened for UK football fans, even if we didn't know it at the time. That move essentially took control away from a group who had always seen success in football as a threat to Kentucky basketball. That view went as far back as the early fifties when Paul "Bear" Bryant brought Kentucky success on the gridiron.

So, something had to change and Mitch Barnhart and Dr. Capilouto made it happen by hiring Florida State's defensive coordinator, Mark Stoops. Some of us are very grateful for that 40-0 butt kicking that Vandy laid on us. It set some significant wheels in motion. Changes were coming and they were out there for all to see. The obvious is the Commonwealth Stadium renovation and the planned additions to the Nutter Complex.

Stoops began with the idea of turning Kentucky into a relevant football program and he began with recruiting, convincing a higher level of talent to come to Kentucky. Kentucky's first recruiting class jumped from 62nd in December 2012 to 29th in the Rivals Rankings in February of 2013. He also cleaned house of players who had things other than football on their minds and those who didn't have the attitude he was looking for. Several talented players were gone by the beginning of last season. He and his staff didn't have a lot to work with, as we now know, but they gave the fans hope. That hope was dimmed with the second straight loss to WKU and ending the season with another 2-10 record.

In spite of that second 2-10 record which included another loss to Vanderbilt (22-6) in Nashville, Stoops & Company kept the excitement rolling into this season by bringing in Kentucky's best ever freshman class. This group of freshmen wound up ranked 17th in the Rivals Rankings.  That definitely eased the sting of last season.

We are coming into a season with a softer schedule where two of our first three games are at home. Five of our first six games are at home and only Vanderbilt and South Carolina are SEC opponents.

Beating Vanderbilt becomes huge for what it could do for our program: build confidence. Would that bring enough confidence built to beat South Carolina the following week? We have a history of playing South Carolina close in Lexington since 2002 which I will get into in my South Carolina preview. If the boys in blue win against Vanderbilt, there is a possibility of going to Baton Rouge with a 5-1 or a 4-2 record.

While Kentucky went through the turmoil of a coaching change at the end of the 2012 season, Vanderbilt was devastated by the loss of their head coach, James Frankin, who left for Penn State and taking several 2014 Vandy recruits with him at the end of the 2013 season. Vanderbilt's administration made the problem worse by taking a long time to hire new head coach Derek Mason (former Stanford defensive coordinator). So the Commodores are facing what the Wildcats went through last year. Under Franklin, Vanderbilt's recruiting improved significantly after his first year. After a Rivals Ranking of 71st for the 2011 class, recruiting classes jumped to 29th in 2012 and 19th in 2013.

The new coaching staff, however, has had to go through what Stoops & Company had to go through in 2013, but without as much time to build a class. Vanderbilt's 2014 class of incoming freshmen was ranked 49th in the Rivals rankings with an average star rating of 2.72. Vanderbilt's media guide spins the class in a different way:

Since arriving on campus, Mason has attracted an outstanding signing class of 22 prospects, assembled a highly qualified staff that includes a former major college head coach and six coordinators, and effectively rolled out new offensive and defensive schemes during his initial Spring Practice.

Vanderbilt also is installing a new offense and defense like Kentucky did last year. On offense, they will run a pro style set that uses the Power O that Stanford runs. You can read about it at Anchor of Gold which provides a good explanation. They have the running backs to do this, but will they have an offensive line that can run the blocking schemes? They will also run some inside zone reads and outside zone stretch plays as described in the article. You can see Vanderbilt's 2014 Media Guide if you're interested. They are returning 13 starters (six on offense, 5 on defense plus 2 specialists) and 43 lettermen.

On the offensive line they return all except for OT Wesley Johnson. Expect Vanderbilt to feature their running game early in the season as they have to replace QB Austyn Carta-Samuels and have only one returning wide receiver who was a starter last season. The likely QB the Wildcats will face is Patton Robinette who started three times last year, including wins at Florida and the win over Houston in the BBVA Compass Bowl. The Commodores return a stable of running backs, including two starters and six lettermen. Look for Brian Kimbrow and Jerron Seymore to carry most of the load.

On defense, Vanderbilt will be switching to a 3-4 alignment. The defensive line has two returning starters and four lettermen. Vince Taylor and Barron Dixon are the two returning starters. The strength of their defense will be at linebacker with two starters and nine lettermen returning. Their biggest weakness is the defensive backfield, which has no returning starters. They do have six returning letter winners, however.

The cornerbacks are all youngsters: three sophomore lettermen, two red shirt freshmen and three true freshmen. The safeties feature some experience. Two 2-year letter winner plus one letterman senior. The problem is a lack of depth as the rest of the corps are three red shirt freshmen and three true freshmen.

It is easy to see that Vanderbilt will be vulnerable this year like Kentucky was last year, especially on defense. I'm not sure the Commodores have the experience or depth to handle an improved Air Raid style offense that the Wildcats will be bringing to the table.

Vanderbilt's schedule shows a first game against Temple, followed by Ole Miss, Massachusetts, and South Carolina in Nashville before their first road game in Lexington. I tend to think they will arrive with a 2-2 record, having lost to Ole Miss and Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks.

Kentucky is espousing a new era, and they'll have to show it with Vanderbilt because the schedule doesn't get easier as the season wears on. There is a special incentive to win this one.

The 1965 team will be in town for their class reunion when UK meets Vandy. This team is the only group who played for four years under Coach Charlie Bradshaw and they made up Kentucky's freshman squad who had to practice against the famous Thin Thirty. My good Internet friend, starting left guard Gerard Murphy worked with the UK Alumni Association to put this together.

These guys suffered through the same rigorous training and conditioning as the Thin Thirty, yet the majority stuck with Bradshaw while the upper classmen were leaving in droves. The majority of this class has a different view of Charlie Bradshaw, whose wife has been invited by the players to attend the reunion.

If you don't know who Rick Norton (deceased) was, then you might not be a older Kentucky football fan. Norton played high school ball at Louisville Flaget and was the QB for the team who led the Wildcats to a 6-2 record and a top 10 ranking going into the Houston game. Norton went down with a broken leg during the game and Kentucky lost 21-38. The team had no replacement other than new transfer QB Roger Walz and sophomore Terry Beadles.

Without Norton running the show, Kentucky finished the season with a 6-4 record after losing to Tennessee 19-3. That's equivalent to a 7-5 record today which is good enough for a bowl invitation and a 7-4 record before the 12 game schedules. Since 1965, Kentucky has won 60% of their regular season games in 1976 (8-3), 1977 (10-1), 1984 (8-3), 1998 (7-4), 2002 (7-5), 2006 (7-5), 2007 (7-5) and 2009 (7-5). That's eight times in 48 years.

I'm told that Sam Ball (All-American), Roger Bird (All-American), Talbot Todd, John Andrighetti, and John Schornick, in addition to Murphy, will be in town for the event as well as others. These guys were probably the toughest bunch of guys to play at Kentucky other than possibly those who played for "The Bear."  The sad thing for me is that I never got to see the 1965 team play. I was in Vietnam at the time, but I did get to listen to the Houston game in the radio room of my ship.

The seniors of 1965 deserve to be honored and, this year's team can honor them by beating the Vanderbilt Commodores.