Mark Stoops has quietly been one of the better coaches in the SEC for some time. He is easily overlooked because Kentucky hasn’t won a division title or made the College Football Playoff.
By Matt Zemek
It’s pretty clear he’s capable of high-quality coaching even when his talent pool is limited compared to the rest of the SEC. If Stoops were coaching at USC or Texas, it would be interesting to consider what he could achieve, seeing what he has done with the Wildcats both in recruiting and on-field performance. For now he remains at Kentucky, so let’s take a look at what Stoops and the Wildcats need to do to beat the Vanderbilt Commodores. Here are the three keys to Kentucky beating Vanderbilt.
1 – Mike Wright isn’t having a great year, so force him to make plays
Vanderbilt quarterback Mike Wright has struggled in 2021. Against Top 25 opponents, Wright is averaging a 45.5% completion rate, 23 total passing yards, and zero touchdowns. That is jarring. Ken Seals’ injuries forced Wright into action. While Seals has returned to practice ahead of the Kentucky game, Vanderbilt coach Clark Lea has been coy about which quarterback will get the nod against Kentucky. Should it end up being Wright, as anticipated, Mark Stoops needs to make sure Wright can never settle into a comfort zone. Kentucky has the defensive capabilities to do this; the Cats just need to put them into action on Saturday.
2 – Kentucky has one of the nation’s best rushing defenses
The Wildcats have the nation’s 25th best rushing defense. They’ve allowed 1,072 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on the year. That’s an average of 3.76 yards per touch and only 119 yards per game. Vanderbilt has one of the worst rushing offenses in the nation. The Commodores are tied with Eastern Michigan for the 106th worst rushing offense in college football. They’ve managed 1,058 rushing yards on 301 attempts. They’ve scored five rushing touchdowns all year long. The Dores average 3.51 yards per rush and 117 yards per game. That lines up perfectly with what Kentucky does well, so Vanderbilt could struggle in this game. Kentucky will be relieved to see an opponent without the downfield passing game the Tennessee Volunteers have.
3 – Will Levis must not make life easy for Vanderbilt’s defense
It would be interesting to see where Kentucky would be in the grand scheme of things if junior quarterback Will Levis could take better care of the football. He has thrown 10 interceptions on the year. Yes, he has thrown for 17 touchdowns, but that 10-interception total stands out. The noteworthy part of this particular story is that Kentucky has played two ranked teams all year long. One was Georgia, the other Florida. In those games, Levis threw a combined total of one interception. Yet against UL-Monroe and UT-Chattanooga, Levis threw three combined interceptions. He has played well, but he has yet to find an every-week groove. If he can get going early against Vanderbilt, this is exactly the kind of game that could give him confidence heading into the home stretch.