Can the Wildcats rebound with their first win against the Vols in Knoxville since 1984?
The No. 11 Kentucky Wildcats (7-2, 5-2 SEC) will pay a visit to Knoxville to face the Tennessee Volunteers (4-5, 1-4) on Saturday for a matchup between longtime SEC adversaries. The Vols have a stronghold on the all-time series with a record of 79-25-9 dating all the way back to 1893. But it was Kentucky that came away victorious last season by a score of 29-26. The Cats now have an opportunity to secure back-to-back wins against the Volunteers for the first time since 1976-77, as well as a chance to exit Knoxville with their first victory inside Neyland Stadium since 1984.
In order to do that, the Wildcats will need to regroup following last week’s deflating 34-17 home loss to the Georgia Bulldogs. A loss that ultimately cost them a shot at their first-ever SEC East title. The silver lining is that Kentucky has already far exceeded preseason expectations by locking up second place in the division. And while a rare win in Knoxville this Saturday can’t make up for last week’s missed opportunity, it will keep the Wildcats on pace for their first 10-win season in 41 years and a possible New Year’s Six bowl appearance.
Meanwhile, it’s desperation time for the Volunteers, who find themselves in the unusual role of underdog against the visiting Wildcats on Saturday. Tennessee still needs two wins in its final three contests to guarantee bowl eligibility. Last week’s 14-3 victory over Charlotte helped Tennessee get one step closer in that endeavor. However, a lackluster win against a middle-of-the-road Conference USA team may have done little to inspire the momentum that the Vols sorely need heading into this crucial stretch run. The good news is that Tennessee still controls its own destiny. A win against rival Kentucky would not only provide a huge shot in the arm for the Vols’ bowl aspirations, it would give first-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt another marquee victory in his quest to right the ship on Rocky Top.
Kentucky at Tennessee
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 10 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Kentucky -6
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Vols slow down Benny Snell Jr. and the Kentucky ground game?
Tennessee’s chief objective on Saturday will be no different from that of any other team that has faced Kentucky this season — limit Benny Snell Jr. and a formidable Wildcats rushing attack. The Vols fell well short of that task last season, as Kentucky racked up 289 rushing yards and four touchdowns on the ground in a 29-26 win. Benny Snell Jr. accounted for 180 rushing yards and three touchdowns alone in that matchup. And while the elite running back hasn’t looked his best in recent matchups against Georgia and Missouri, he has feasted on vulnerable defenses throughout 2018. He currently sits atop the SEC leaderboard as the only player in the conference to eclipse the 1,000-yard rushing mark this season. His ten rushing touchdowns rank second among SEC running backs.
The Volunteers can only hope that Snell Jr. is functioning at less than 100 percent on Saturday after rolling his ankle in the first half of last week’s loss to Georgia. But chances are, the Vols will still have their hands full. And they still have to contend with Terry Wilson, who ranks second among SEC quarterbacks with 418 rushing yards. Tennessee managed to batten down the hatches last week against Charlotte, allowing just 92 rushing yards. However, the Vols have struggled mightily against the run in each of their last two SEC contests, surrendering 442 combined rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns in losses to Alabama and South Carolina.
2. The Kentucky defense
Kentucky went into last week’s de facto SEC East championship game against Georgia boasting the nations’ top scoring defense (13 points per game), as well as a top-20 run defense (108.6 yards per game). The Wildcats proceeded to give up 34 points and 331 rushing yards to the Bulldogs, in what can best be described as an abysmal performance by a defense that had not previously allowed more than 20 points in a game all season. Could this be an ominous sign for the Kentucky defense moving forward? The Volunteers certainly hope so, but there is a very good chance that last week was simply an anomaly against a potent Georgia offense.
The Wildcats will most likely return to form against a Tennessee offense that has been anything but potent of late. The Vols’ biggest challenge will be keeping All-SEC linebacker Josh Allen out of the backfield. The Butkus Award semi-finalist leads all SEC defenders in sacks (10), tackles-for-loss (14.5) and forced fumbles (5). And Tennessee’s anemic offensive line, that is now without Trey Smith, stands little chance of limiting Allen in the same manner that Georgia did last week. The Vols should benefit from the absence of star defensive back Darius West. Kentucky’s leader in tackles (60), interceptions (3) and passes defended (6) is suspended for the first half of Saturday’s game after being charged with targeting last week.
3. The Tennessee passing game
The only thing worse than the Kentucky run defense last week was Tennessee’s run game. The Vols rushed for a season-low 20 yards against Charlotte. And if you had to bet on one of these units to bounce back this week, the smart money would be on Kentucky’s run defense. That will likely require Tennessee to lean heavily on Jarrett Guarantano and the passing game on Saturday. And the Vols will need to come up with at least a couple of explosive plays in the passing game to have a fighting chance.
If Guarantano can rekindle some of the mojo that helped him earn SEC Offensive Player of the Week honors in the upset win at Auburn, the Vols might even be able to play the role of spoiler once again. Tennessee has several players at the skill positions with big-play ability to help the cause. Most notably: Marquez Callaway, Josh Palmer, Jauan Jennings and Ty Chandler. That said, the Kentucky defense has done a remarkable job of limiting explosive plays in the passing game all season.
This has all the makings of a “trap game” for Kentucky after last week’s monumental let down. History isn’t exactly on the Wildcats’ side either, given their poor track record against the Vols in Knoxville. But there is a reason why the Wildcats are favored by six points on Saturday. Last week notwithstanding, the Kentucky defense has proven itself to be elite. And the Wildcats have a running back in Benny Snell Jr. capable of wearing down an undermanned Tennessee defense that has been wildly inconsistent all season. The Vols should put up a good fight, but a superior Kentucky team will rebound with its first win in Neyland Stadium in 34 years.
Prediction: Kentucky 20, Tennessee 16
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.