Za'Darius Smith was quoted during one of his interviews at SEC media days as saying that the coaching staff has been telling the players that they aren't going 2-10 anymore. The time to win is now and the fruits of their labor are ready to be gathered during this season. Progress needs to be made in order for Mark Stoops and Vince Marrow to have continued success on the recruiting trail. Prospective players need to see that the Wildcats are making headway in the win column and in the SEC power rankings.
Kentucky was again picked to finish last by the media at the SEC media days. This is completely fair. Where else would they pick a team to finish that has not won a conference game since defeating Tennessee 10-7 back in 2011? The Wildcats have firmly been the SEC doormat for a few seasons now, switching places with the Vanderbilt Commodores. The ‘Dores have been riding a wave of success that had never been seen before in program history. Former coach James Franklin had things rolling on the recruiting trail as well as on the field. Vandy has defeated Kentucky three seasons in a row by scores of 38-8, 40-0, and 22-6, knocking Kentucky down into the conference cellar.
But James Franklin fled Nashville for the greener pastures of Penn State and he took his entire recruiting class with him. The Commodores not only lost Franklin and his recruiting class, they also lost most of their major contributors from last season's 9-4 (4-4) team that defeated Houston in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
So why is beating Vanderbilt of such great importance this season? If one looks at Kentucky's schedule, one can see that the Wildcats have a chance to start off with three or four wins before heading into the teeth of the SEC. UT Martin and Ohio are the first two teams that the ‘Cats will see out of the gate. Stoops has a very good shot of starting off 2-0, something they haven't done in two seasons. The third game is against Florida in the Swamp, which I think is still a tall task for a team devoid of veterans in key positions. Also Florida looks poised from a bounce back season that was riddled with injuries and disappoitments.
If these first three games are looked at in a logical manner, 2-1 seems the most likely scenario. Next up for the Wildcats are the Vanderbilt Commodores on September 27th in Commonwealth Stadium after an open date. The Commodores will most likely be 2-2 after opening the season in Nashville against Temple, Ole Miss, UMass, and on the road against South Carolina. When the two teams meet in Lexington, they will be looking for their first SEC wins, Kentucky's first one in two seasons.
If the ‘Cats walk away with a victory over Vandy, they will be 3-1 with a home tilt against South Carolina next on the slate, followed by another home game versus Louisiana Monroe the following Saturday. With a shot of confidence and a burden off of their shoulders, the young ‘Cats have a real chance of going 5-1 earl, or at worst 4-2. Remember, Kentucky played the Gamecocks very tough in Columbia last season, and even though Spurrier's team is picked to win the East division, they have some important pieces that need to be replaced on both sides of the ball.
As long as Kentucky takes care of business against Vanderbilt, they set themselves up for a possible run in which they can win five or six games. Mississippi State, Tennessee, and Louisville are all games that Kentucky can realistically win.
But if Kentucky does indeed lose to Vandy for a fourth time in four seasons, they will be at 2-2 and they will almost assuredly finish last in the SEC as predicted by the media.
Defeating Vandy is of the utmost importance. It sends the message that the ‘Cats are no longer at the bottom of the food chain in the conference and that they are ready to take the next step in the process of bringing Kentucky back to competing and being in bowl games.