This season for Kentucky Football has been quite the roller coaster already, but Saturday’s game vs. Missouri will prove to determine the Wildcats’ trajectory moving forward.
A win will come with confidence about getting a bowl big and finishing the season .500 or better. A loss will create a sense of desperation to win three of the last four.
Missouri is in an interesting spot themselves. At times, they have looked like they can contend for the SEC East. But they also have mind-boggling losses to Vanderbilt and Wyoming.
If they win out, in theory, they could still play for the SEC Championship. But will the loss to Vandy cause the Tigers to fold?
One caveat to Missouri’s division crown hopes is they currently have a postseason ban that prevents them from winning the division or making a bowl game. They’re still somehow in the appeals process and were initially confident they’d get the ban overturned, but it hasn’t happened yet. It’s frankly embarrassing that the NCAA still hasn’t issued a final ruling yet.
Many believed this week would bring the return of Sawyer Smith for Kentucky. By kickoff time on Saturday, he will have not seen game action in 28 days. But with the incoming rain, you have to think the Kentucky coaching staff would consider going with Lynn Bowden at quarterback.
Although the Wildcats did not score against Georgia last week, they did move the ball on the ground at times. With Bowden’s speed and versatility at quarterback, it opened up a lot of running lanes. Had it not been for untimely penalties on the offensive line, Kentucky may have been in a chance to compete against Georgia in last week’s monsoon.
The weather in Athens essentially eliminated the passing game altogether for both teams last week. Georgia’s Jake Fromm only threw for 35 yards, himself. While Missouri has been able to run the ball some this season, it has largely been due to opposing defenses playing off the ball to honor the pass.
The majority of the Tigers’ points have come through the air this year, led by Clemson transfer quarterback Kelly Bryant. Bryant has completed 63% of his passes this season, throwing for 1,715 yard and 13 touchdowns. He also spreads the ball around very effectively, as six different receivers have over 200 yards receiving this season.
The running attack consists mostly of large doses of junior running back Larry Roundtree III. Again, this offense is pass-first and that often opens up holes. But Roundtree is certainly capable of taking advantage of opportunities. He did have one of Missouri’s two touchdowns against Kentucky last year.
Defensively, the Tigers will be missing some key players for various portions of this game. Starting linebacker Cale Garrett, who recorded 112 tackles last season, tore his pectoral muscle vs. Troy.
In addition, starting Tyree Gillespie will be sidelined for the first half of this game after he incurred a targeting penalty in the second half against Vanderbilt last week. He ranks ranks fourth on the team in tackles with 28.
The Tigers now rely heavily on linebacker Nick Bolton to anchor the defense. Bolton made a career-high 15 tackles and matched a career-high with three tackles for loss in last week’s loss to Vanderbilt. He now leads the SEC in tackles per game (8.7) and solo tackles per game (6.0) and is second on the team with 6.0 tackles for loss this season.
In the trenches, Jordan Elliott has become one of the best defensive tackles in the nation, and he’ll be a load in the middle for Kentucky’s offensive line to handle. According to Pro Football Focus, Elliott is grading out at 90.4 for the season, second-best on the team behind only Bolton (90.9).
While the spread certainly seems high at 10.5, especially after Missouri’s debacle last week at Vanderbilt, the visiting team is rightfully the favorite going into the match-up. If the weather is able to keep the Tigers offense on the ground, Kentucky has a much better chance at pulling off the upset at home on Saturday.
Will the Wildcats be able to pick up their fifth victory in a row over Missouri? Or will Big Blue Nation be praying for a miracle Sunday morning for the Cats to get a bowl bid?