Kernel Sports Staff predictions for the Music City Bowl

Kentucky Wildcats running back Benny Snell Jr. (26) walks off after a play during the Governor’s Cup game against Louisville at Kroger Field on Saturday, November 25, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Arden Barnes | Staff

Zack Geoghegan

Before traveling down to Nashville for the Music City Bowl, members of the Kernel’s sports staff answered some questions to the headlines surrounding the big game. Here’s what they had to say.

Who wins the running back battle, Kentucky’s Benny Snell or Northwestern’s Justin Jackson?

Chris Leach (sports editor): Justin Jackson. I think Benny Snell is the better player, but he’ll be going up against the ninth best rushing defense in the country while Jackson will go up against a defense that has surrendered 727 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns in the last two games. Jackson has rushed over 144 in each of his last two games, and I expect him to continue rolling against Kentucky’s struggling defense, especially without Denzil Ware. 

Zack Geoghegan (staff writer): I agree with Chris here. Jackson and Snell are both two of the best running backs in the country, but Jackson will be going up against a weaker defensive line than Snell. Jackson is incredibly shifty with deadly cut back moves, and he can be impossible to tackle at times. Kentucky typically struggles against backs like Jackson and I wouldn’t expect Friday’s game to be any different.

Are you more concerned about Northwestern’s offense or defense?

CL: Defense. As previously mentioned, Northwestern’s rush defense ranks ninth in the country, and that’s Kentucky’s main offensive attack. Headlined by Godwin Igwebuike, Paddy Fisher and Joe Graziano, Northwestern’s defenders should be able to generate some pressure in Kentucky’s backfield.

ZG: While Northwestern has two dangerous weapons on offense with Jackson and quarterback Clayton Thorson, their defense is what concerns me the most. Fisher is one of the most talented young players in the Big Ten and leads Northwestern in forced fumbles and tackles. Fisher and fellow linebacker Nate Hall lead one of the best rushing defenses in the country that allows only 111 rushing yards per game.

What do you think is key for Kentucky to pull out a win?

CL: As Matt House would probably say, stop the run. Northwestern’s offense seems similar to Kentucky’s, and the times that UK’s offense struggled to run the ball, they barely put up points. Thorson has thrown 12 interceptions on the year, and if UK can force Thorson to throw the ball, that could be a difference maker.

ZG: The big plays downfield will likely be the difference for Kentucky, if they attempt them. Northwestern’s secondary isn’t anything like their front line and they are prone to give up the deep ball. If Stephen Johnson can chuck more than a few balls for 20-plus yards, good things will happen for Kentucky.

Who do you think will be the MVP for Kentucky in the Music City Bowl?

CL: Stephen Johnson. Northwestern averages more points per game than Kentucky, and if the Cats hope to keep up, they’ll need some solid production from their quarterback. I also think the extra rest Johnson got, and his experience in the TaxSlayer Bowl last year, will help him end his career at Kentucky with a good performance.

ZG: For Kentucky to win, it has to be Stephen Johnson. Northwestern’s rush defense is borderline elite and will do everything they can to limit Snell. Johnson is going to have to make the deep completions and work the defense outside of the pocket. If he can do so and Kentucky wins, Johnson will surely take bethe MVP.

What is your prediction for the game?

CL: I don’t think Kentucky wins this game. Northwestern just seems to have more weapons, and UK’s defense will be vulnerable after Ware’s suspension. Northwestern wins the Music City Bowl 31-20.

ZG: I’m going to go against Chris here for the sake of argument. Kentucky didn’t finish the season strong, but they’ve had plenty of time to prepare for this one. Benny Snell needs to run for at least 80 yards and the defense has to limit the short throws from Thorson, but if they can, Kentucky has a great shot at taking home their third Music City Bowl trophy.

You can follow Chris, Zack and the Kernel for coverage of the Music City Bowl. Kickoff is at 4:30 p.m. ET.