There is plenty of intrigue in this year’s Tennessee-Kentucky game, which is more than you could say for much of the past three decades.
A reference to this rivalry could be made next to the word “ownership” in the dictionary, as the Volunteers have beaten the Wildcats 30 out of the past 31 games dating back to 1985.
The Vols dominated each of the past two games as well, winning 50-16 the last time these teams played in Knoxville in 2014 and 52-21 last year. But the ‘Cats have finally come into their own a bit under fourth-year coach Mark Stoops this year, carrying a 5-4 record into this game.
UK is actually ahead of the Vols in the SEC East currently with a 4-3 record, though its divisional hopes took a hard hit in last weekend’s 27-24 loss on a last-second field goal against Georgia.
The Vols are trying to turn around a disappointing year, thanks to a shocking road loss against South Carolina the last time they played an SEC game. Though they snapped a three-game losing streak with a 55-0 win over Tennessee Tech last weekend, they need to win out to have a chance to make it to Atlanta.
Both of these teams are chasing Florida in the East with the Vols still having a legit championship chance. Let’s take a look at everything you need to know.
Date: Saturday, Nov. 12
Time: 12 p.m. ET
Place: Neyland Stadium
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Vols by 12.5, according to Odds Shark.
Build off the explosive plays
Tennessee head coach Butch Jones calls them “splash plays,” but the Vols have barely made a ripple when it comes to game-breaking runs or passes over the past few years.
That changed last week against Tennessee Tech. Of course, a lot of that had to do with the Football Championship Subdivision opponent Golden Eagles, but that didn’t make it any less of a welcome sign.
Quarterback Joshua Dobbs completed touchdown passes of 30 and 43 yards, and John Kelly had a 73-yard scoring run, the longest for the Vols since Lamarcus Coker’s 87-yard run in 2006. The Vols added a 62-yard punt return by freshman Marquez Callaway.
“We knew they were going to milk the clock, so we needed to get off the field defensively and we needed explosive plays,” Jones told the Vol Network at halftime.
That outburst still only moved the Vols to ninth in the SEC in plays over 10 yards.
Shore up the run D
All of those injuries in the front seven have hampered Tennessee’s rush defense, which is ranked eighth in the SEC entering Saturday.
Considering Kentucky’s fifth-ranked rushing attack, that’s a number that needs to improve in a hurry.
The Vols are without defensive tackles Danny O’Brien, Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie as they try to piecemeal a defensive line that can clog run lanes. The return of middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. has helped that issue, but the Vols need to do better against UK than they did against South Carolina.
Lords of Discipline
A hallmark of Tennessee under Jones has been not beating itself until this year.
The Vols’ struggles with turnovers and penalties have hampered what should have been a memorable season, but there is still time for them to turn things around. UT is more talented than Kentucky and should win the game if it does the little things right.
If they don’t, it could be another South Carolina scenario.
Improve offensive efficiency
Kentucky is simply not electric enough on offense to rely on big plays, so the Wildcats must sustain drives with precision passing and a solid running game to win.
That failed them in last week’s loss against Georgia as Stephen Johnson mustered just 121 passing yards. More importantly, they couldn’t stay on the field, going just 3-of-13 on third-down conversions.
During their recent strong run, the Wildcats controlled the clock, and they need to get back to doing that against the Vols.
“We needed to play more physical,” Stoops told WKYT.com’s Lee K. Howard. “We needed to make cleaner tackles and get off on some third downs. They converted 6 of 14, but we only converted 3 of 13. So possessions hurt.”
The least-talked-about dynamic running back duo in the SEC is Stanley Williams and Benny Snell, but they’ve fueled the Wildcats to the league’s fifth-rated rushing attack.
Williams continues his strong Kentucky career with 898 rushing yards this season on a 7.3 average. The bigger surprise is Snell, who enjoyed a 100-yard rushing output against Georgia and had immense success running out of the Wildcat. He has 775 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns this year.
Those guys provide a thunder-and-lightning duo that can cause the Vols problems with their rush defense woes.
Kentucky is last in the league in turnover differential and turnovers forced, so the defense hasn’t been very opportunistic.
This is normally the time of year for the Wildcats to wear down if they follow suit from the previous two years. They’ve got to combat against that and force Dobbs and UT’s young offensive players into several mistakes to win.
After scoring in each of the Vols’ first four games, the junior receiver hit a major lull during their three-game losing streak where he couldn’t find the end zone.
He was back there twice against Tennessee Tech, and UT needs him to be the game-breaking talent he’s capable of being through the rest of the season. Malone has 31 catches for 556 yards and seven scores on the season.
Last year, he had the big passing play against UK that opened the floodgates. The Vols could use that type of performance again this year.
When you strip away all the drama from Jalen Hurd quitting the team during his junior year when he was in line to become the school’s all-time leading rusher, the reality remains: Kelly and Alvin Kamara are more ideal fits schematically for this offense.
Hurd is more of a downhill, I-formation back, but Kamara and Kelly feature hole-hitting, one-cut styles that are perfect for the zone-read offense.
Kelly, particularly, gives UT fans excitement for the future as well as the present. The sophomore broke a 73-yard touchdown run against Tennessee Tech and shows a nice blend of power and speed.
With Kamara still trying to make his way back, he could be limited against UK this week. If it’s Kelly’s show, it’s his time to shine.
Jones broke more bad news Monday when he told the media safety Evan Berry would miss the rest of the season with a knee injury, per Gridiron Now’s Trenton Duffer.
That opens up an avenue for Warrior to get on the field. The true freshman son of Vol great Dale Carter earned extensive playing time against Tech and flashed elite closing speed. He doesn’t always know where he is supposed to be, but he closes gaps in a hurry.
The Vols need him to grow up quickly against Kentucky. He may even start opposite Todd Kelly Jr.
When Drew Barker went down in a Week 3 win over New Mexico State with a back injury, a dismal start to Kentucky’s season looked like it would only get more bleak.
That’s when JUCO transfer quarterback Stephen Johnson took over and began carrying the Wildcats on his shoulders.
While he isn’t a star by any means, Johnson finds ways to make plays. They won five of the past seven games with him at the helm.
“It doesn’t always look pretty, but he’s making plays,” Stoops told the Lexington Herald-Leader‘s Jennifer Smith after a win over Mizzou two weeks ago. “…[H]e’s making plays to put us in a position to go win football games.”
Stanley “Boom” Williams
Williams took a leap of faith a couple of years ago when he decided to choose Kentucky after initially committing to Georgia.
All he’s done is become a star when he’s healthy for the Wildcats. Now as a junior, he continues to be a big-play threat every time he touches the ball. Averaging 7.3 yards per carry, Williams is a guy UT needs to zero in on every time he’s on the field.
He’s fourth in the league in rushing yards, and nothing would cap his career like a big victory over rival Tennessee. All the ‘Cats must do to be bowl-eligible for the first time in Williams’ career is beat Austin Peay, but a win over the Vols would be huge for Boom and the program.
The Kentucky linebacker has been all over the field this season, leading the Wildcats with 81 tackles and 10 tackles for a loss.
Earlier this year, SEC Network analyst Tim Tebow named him one of his Freaks of the Week.
He has the talent and ability to disrupt a lot of UT plays in the backfield, and the Vols need to make sure they don’t allow him any clear paths to Dobbs. He’s also a force against the run, too.
Not only will Evan Berry’s loss be felt because he’s an All-American kickoff returner, he was also doing well in a depleted Tennessee defensive backfield.
The Vols are going to have to find a way to replace him, according to Jones in quotes released by UTSports.com.
It goes with the theme; I will sit up here and tell you that he is going to be missed. Missed not only from a return aspect of things, but we thought he was playing very well in the back end of our defense. He was really coming along at the safety position. That will be a position that we will be very thin. That is the one thing that was revealed in the game from last week; we are not where we need to be from a depth standpoint. You can see a number of individuals towards the tail end of the game because we didn’t have anyone else to put in the game, but that comes with being able to recruit and develop. He is going to be missed.
Kentucky’s Stoops knows playing against UT stud defensive end Derek Barnett is going to be a tall task this weekend: “It’s an issue,” he told the Lexington Herald Leader‘s Jennifer Smith. “He’s a difference maker. He’s a difference maker.”
Stoops told Smith the Vols are still a good team despite having three losses and seemingly addressed UT’s loss to South Carolina in a recent interview:
If you watch our league, you have the tendency to see some scores sometimes that you raise your eyebrows and say, ‘Wow.’ But again, that’s the nature of the beast. We’re constantly beating up on each other and dog eats dog, right? And so everybody, it’s brutal. It’s hard. You get beat up and you’re not always going to play your best. You’re not always going to be play with that perfect edge. You’ve got to try to win the games when you’re not peaking.
Tennessee has to find a way to flip the narrative on the season.
Even after a lopsided win over Tennessee Tech last weekend, there’s still a sour tenor around the program thanks to an inexcusable road loss to South Carolina. That’s the first time Jones’ team has really lost one it wasn’t supposed to since his first year against Vanderbilt.
When you throw in the negative perception from Hurd quitting and all of the injuries the Vols have suffered, there may be a tendency to already look toward 2017.
That would be unwise.
Because of the state of flux in the SEC East, the Vols could still go to Atlanta and salvage their top goal for this season. If they win out and finish 9-3 and Florida loses to either South Carolina or LSU, the Vols will be in the SEC Championship Game. Once you get there, who knows what will happen?
Is it a long shot to think UT can beat Alabama (or Auburn) there? Yes, but getting back to the championship game would be a building block for the program, no matter what happens.
That has to be the primary focus now, and it all begins with a home matchup against a better-than-usual Kentucky.
The last time the Vols faced a must-win game, they laid an egg against South Carolina with a bye week to prepare. Maybe that doesn’t instill a lot of confidence, but the bet here is UT does enough at home against Kentucky to march toward Missouri and Vanderbilt with plenty for which to play.
UT’s offense will stay on track, and the Vols will make enough plays to survive.
Prediction: Vols 31, Kentucky 20