The No. 3 Tennessee Volunteers will host the No. 19 Kentucky Wildcats in Knoxville for a Saturday night showdown between Top 25 SEC East foes.
Kentucky appears to be back on track heading into Saturday night’s tilt against the rival Vols after snapping a two-game losing skid with a win against Mississippi State at home its last time out. The 27-17 victory helped the Wildcats improve to 5-2 overall and 2-2 in SEC play. Now fresh off a bye, Big Blue will make its way to Rocky Top in search of a little payback following last season’s narrow loss to Tennessee in Lexington. Mark Stoops’ squad would like nothing more than to play the role of spoiler in Neyland Stadium and bring an end to the Vols' perfect season.
Tennessee followed up its colossal 52-49 victory over Alabama with a 65-24 beat down of FCS UT Martin last Saturday. The win helped the surging Volunteers preserve their surprising storybook season and remain undefeated at 7-0 (3-0 SEC). Josh Heupel’s squad will now face its fifth Top 25 opponent of the season. It’s also worth noting that Tennessee will be in "Dark Mode" on Saturday night, dawning all-black uniforms for this pre-Halloween matchup. Even with next week's marquee matchup with Georgia looming, the Vols can't afford to look past the Wildcats.
Saturday night’s game will mark the 118th meeting all-time between Tennessee and Kentucky in a series that dates back to 1893. The Vols hold a commanding 82-26-9 lead, including last season's 45-42 victory in Lexington.
No. 19 Kentucky at No. 3 Tennessee
When Kentucky Has the Ball
The Wildcats enter Saturday night’s game ranked 83rd nationally in both total offense and scoring offense, averaging 373.7 yards and 26.4 points per game. Quarterback Will Levis, a projected first-round NFL draft pick, is at the helm. In six games, he's completed 69.5 percent of his pass attempts for 1,635 yards with 13 touchdowns against five interceptions. He currently ranks second in the SEC in both passer rating (173.3) and passing yards per attempt (10).
Levis leans heavily on a trio of talented pass catchers in Tayvion Robinson (25 rec., 392 yds., 3 TDs), Barion Brown (24, 350, 2), and Dane Key (20, 350, 2). Robinson will likely be back in the lineup after missing the Mississippi State game with a leg injury. Robinson and Brown both star in the return game as well.
Levis and Co. shouldn’t have much problem moving the football through the air against a beat-up Tennessee secondary. The Volunteers currently rank next to last in the nation (out of 131 FBS teams) against the pass, giving up 329.7 yards per game. That said, an aggressive pass rush that has generated 17 sacks and 59 quarterback hurries could be a real issue for a Kentucky offensive line that has played a big role in allowing an SEC-high 26 sacks so far. And despite Tennessee’s deficiency against the pass, the defense has been solid in critical situations, ranking 28th nationally on third down (32.7 percent) and 13th in the red zone (73.3 percent).
In terms of the matchup in the run game, the Vols appear to have a significant edge on paper. They are currently tied for eighth in the nation at 90.9 rushing yards per game allowed, while the Wildcats are 109th at a pedestrian 113.4 yards per game on the ground. The return of running back Chris Rodriguez Jr., who has compiled 395 rushing yards and three touchdowns in the last three games, has helped but he can't be expected to carry the load by himself. It will be critical for Kentucky to find a way to run the ball effectively, as it also will help keep Tennessee's explosive offense off of the field.
When Tennessee Has the Ball
There isn’t a more prolific offense in the country than Tennessee’s up-tempo attack, which ranks No. 1 nationally in both yards (571.7) and points (50.1) per game. Heisman hopeful quarterback Hendon Hooker spearheads that effort — completing 70.6 percent of his pass attempts for 2,093 yards with a remarkable 18:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Hooker’s 10.8 yards per pass attempt is the best in the nation, while his 190.8 passer rating sits atop the SEC. The dual-threat signal-caller also has a knack for keeping defenses off-balance with his legs, accounting for 315 yards and three scores on the ground.
While Hooker is the primary catalyst behind the success of this high-octane offense, he has gotten plenty of help from a standout group of playmakers. Chief among them is wide receiver Jalin Hyatt, who has stepped up in a big way in the absence of fellow wideout Cedric Tillman. Hyatt has been unstoppable of late and for the season has amassed 40 receptions for an SEC-leading 769 yards and an FBS-leading 12 touchdowns. Fellow wide receivers, Bru McCoy (24 rec., 397 yds., 2 TDs) and Ramel Keyton (20, 357, 3) also have performed well in Tillman’s absence. And there is a chance that Tillman could return on Saturday from an ankle injury, which would further boost the Vols’ explosive passing attack.
The ground game also is getting it done, ranking in the top 25 nationally at 202.9 rushing yards per game. That effort is led by a solid one-two punch at running back in Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright, who have combined for 802 yards and 12 scores on the ground.
On paper, Kentucky's defense should provide a decent test for Tennessee's offense. The Wildcats rank in the top 15 in the FBS ranks in both total (295.4 ypg) and scoring (16.4 ppg) defense. They are giving up 117.4 rushing yards per game (28th overall) but have really excelled in shutting down opponents' passing attacks. Kentucky is 14th in the nation (third in the SEC) at 178.3 yards per game through the air allowed, and has recorded more interceptions (six) than touchdown passes surrendered (four). For this to continue on Saturday night, the Wildcats must get pressure on Hooker, which won't be easy. Not only has Kentucky only generated 10 sacks on the year, but the Volunteers' much-improved offensive line has only been tagged with 11 sacks allowed. The Wildcats also don't boast any pass-rushing specialist as in years past (such as 2018 SEC Defensive Player of the Year Josh Allen), as no defender has more than 1.5 sacks thus far.
If the Volunteers happen to overlook the Wildcats ahead of their big matchup against Georgia next week, an upset isn’t completely out of the question here. The Kentucky offense has enough talent to move the football and put points on the scoreboard, particularly through the air against the Vols’ struggling and banged-up secondary. However, the Wildcats' offensive line continues to be a liability that Tennessee can exploit.
The Kentucky defense also presents a legitimate challenge in this matchup. But the lack of a pass rush will make it hard to routinely affect the red-hot Hooker and slow down the Vols' high-octane, up-tempo offense on a consistent basis, which is what needs to happen for the Wildcats to put the first blemish on Tennessee's fairytale season.
A well-rested Kentucky squad should manage to keep this game somewhat interesting. However, it will be extremely difficult for the Wildcats to keep pace on the scoreboard against an explosive Vols offense on Saturday night inside hostile Neyland Stadium. Tennessee's perfect season remains intact before heading to Athens for a colossal matchup against Georgia.
Prediction: Tennessee 41, Kentucky 31
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— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.
*Price as of publication.