The No. 18 Tennessee Volunteers will square off against the Kentucky Wildcats in front of a limited crowd inside Neyland Stadium on Saturday. It will mark the 116th meeting between these longtime SEC adversaries, with Tennessee holding a commanding 81-25-9 lead in the all-time series. The Vols have won 33 of the last 35 meetings, including a hard-fought 17-13 victory last season in Lexington. Tennessee has dominated the series at home as well, winning 17 consecutive games against the Wildcats in Knoxville dating back to 1984.
Tennessee will look to hit the reset button after its eight-game winning streak came to an abrupt end with last Saturday's 44-21 loss at Georgia. It was a tale of two halves for the Vols, who took a 21-17 lead into halftime before imploding against a dominant Georgia defense in a mistake-filled second half. Now 2-1 on the season, Jeremy Pruitt's Volunteers will attempt to get back on track.
Kentucky bounced back from a heartbreaking 42-41 overtime loss to Ole Miss to secure its first win of the season last week at home against Mississippi State. An opportunistic Wildcat defense capitalized on six Mississippi State interceptions to thwart Mike Leach's Air Raid passing attack in the lopsided 24-2 victory over the Bulldogs. The 1-2 Wildcats will now make their way to Rocky Top fueled by a little momentum. But will it be enough to snap a 17-game losing streak against the Vols inside Neyland Stadium?
Kentucky at No. 18 Tennessee
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 17 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Tennessee -6
When Kentucky Has the Ball
The strength of Kentucky's offense undoubtedly lies in the run game, where the Wildcats lead with 212.3 rushing yards per game to go along with eight touchdowns on the ground through three games. Quarterback Terry Wilson has led the way for Kentucky's versatile ground attack with 221 yards and three touchdowns. Running back Christopher Rodriguez Jr. has 184 yards and three scores, while backfield mate Asim Rose isn't far behind with 170 yards and one rushing touchdown.
However, Kentucky's current status as the conference's top-ranked rushing attack is somewhat misleading. The Wildcats racked up 408 of their 637 rushing yards, and six of their eight rushing touchdowns, in a single contest against a terrible Ole Miss defense. They combined to rush for just 229 yards and one touchdown in their two other matchups against Auburn and Mississippi State, averaging a pedestrian 3.2 yards per carry in the process. An experienced offensive line, hailed as one of the best in the SEC, also struggled to open running lanes in both of those games.
Running room may also prove difficult to come by on Saturday against a Tennessee defense that has allowed a stingy 3.3 yards per carry. Kentucky will have to make do without running back Kavosiey Smoke (team-high 7.6 ypc) for the second week in a row due to a broken rib. Nevertheless, the Vols are still likely to have their hands full trying to defend Kentucky's multifaceted ground attack. This is the first time that Tennessee has faced a true dual-threat quarterback this season, and the Wildcats' running game can be dangerous when it's hitting on all cylinders. Tennessee will bank on star linebacker Henry To'o To'o (team-high 23 tackles, 3 for a loss) to prevent Kentucky from gaining too much ground.
While Wilson has proven to be a viable threat in the run game, his production as a passer leaves plenty to be desired. Wilson has thrown for just 462 yards, with two touchdown passes and one interception through three games. A lack of explosive plays has been the biggest issue with just six pass plays of 20 yards or more (tied for last in the SEC). Senior wide receiver Josh Ali has been Wilson's most reliable target, hauling in 18 passes for 208 yards.
Kentucky will be matched up against a Tennessee pass defense that currently ranks fifth in the SEC, surrendering a somewhat generous 248.7 yards per game through the air. The Vols have been particularly vulnerable in coverage against passes over the middle, an area in which the Wildcats may be able to find success on Saturday. Finding the end zone will prove more challenging against considering Tennessee has allowed just three touchdown passes, which is tied for the fewest in the SEC. Meanwhile, the Kentucky offensive line will face the tall task of fending off Vols edge rusher Deandre Johnson, who currently leads the conference with 3.5 sacks.
When Tennessee Has the Ball
The Tennessee offense ran into a buzzsaw last Saturday in the form of a suffocating, relentless Georgia defense. The Vols' run game, which entered last week's contest averaging 182.5 yards per game, was held to -1 rushing yard against the Bulldogs. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano turned the ball over three times in arguably the worst second-half performance of his career. And the Vols' highly touted offensive line failed miserably in living up to its lofty billing, as that group was routinely overpowered and outmatched by a superior Georgia defensive front. Wide receiver Josh Palmer was the lone bright spot for the Tennessee offense, hauling in a pair of first-half touchdowns. The question is — will this offense be able to rebound against Kentucky?
Tennessee had plenty of self-inflicted wounds against the Bulldogs, including a season-high 10 penalties. But the Georgia defense was the primary catalyst behind the Vols' struggles on offense. The expectation is that the offense will return to form on Saturday with a performance that more closely resembles what we saw from the Vols in matchups against South Carolina and Missouri.
That being said, Kentucky appears to have a better defense than both South Carolina and Mizzou. And the Vols will be tested against a unit that just held a Mike Leach-coached offense scoreless for the first time, picking off six passes in the process. Linebacker Jordan Wright led that effort with a career-high six tackles (2 for a loss), a sack, and a pick-six to earn SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors.
But unlike Mississippi State, Tennessee is not one-dimensional on offense. Running the football will be challenging against a Kentucky defense that is only giving up 3.1 yards per carry. But the Vols should be able to find some semblance of success on the ground with the one-two punch of Eric Gray and Ty Chandler. And Tennessee's offensive line should bounce back against a Kentucky defensive front that, while solid, pales in comparison to Georgia's.
Guarantano and the passing game will be the x-factor for Tennessee. While Guarantano has been a serious liability for this offense at times, he was off to a good start before running into Georgia's elite defense last week. His track record against Mark Stoops-coached defenses also bodes well. In three career games against the Wildcats, Guarantano has completed 73 percent of his passes for 554 yards with four touchdowns, and most importantly, zero turnovers (jinx alert). It will be paramount for Guarantano to keep that streak intact on Saturday in conjunction with making a few big plays downfield with his arm.
Kentucky is better than its 1-2 record suggests, and the Wildcats' defense brings some momentum into Saturday's matchup following a monster performance against Mississippi State. Kentucky also has a multifaceted run game that could keep Tennessee's defense off-balance with dual-threat quarterback Terry Wilson leading the way. Conversely, the Kentucky passing game is a major weakness and it will be difficult for the one-dimensional Wildcats to produce explosive plays against a solid Tennessee defense.
Meanwhile, Tennessee's offense has thrived on explosive plays so far this season. And while Kentucky is stout defensively, the Wildcats are not capable of putting up the same kind of fight as Georgia. There may not be a defense in all of college football that can bring that level of resistance. The Vols may not shine bright on offense this Saturday, but they will be highly motivated and put together enough big plays to come out on top, as they extend their home winning streak against the Wildcats to 18 games.
Prediction: Tennessee 27, Kentucky 20
Podcast: Week 7 Preview and Predictions
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.