The Tennessee Volunteers (6-3, 2-3 SEC) will host the Kentucky Wildcats (5-4, 4-3) in Knoxville on Saturday with SEC East implications on the line. Butch Jones’ Volunteers appeared rejuvenated as they were able to get back into the win column last week with a shutout victory over FCS opponent Tennessee Tech. The win doesn’t erase a tough stretch for the Vols that concluded with three consecutive SEC losses. Nor does it erase the Jalen Hurd fiasco or the lingering injury concerns. However, it does provide the Volunteers with a much-needed shot of momentum. And thanks to Arkansas’ win against Florida, optimism reigns supreme for Tennessee, as the Vols’ SEC East title hopes are still very much alive.
While the Wildcats currently reside in second place in the SEC East, their chances of making it to Atlanta took a major hit with last week’s 27-24 loss to Georgia. That being said, Kentucky still has plenty at stake. One more win will make the Wildcats bowl eligible for the first time since 2010. And if it happens on Saturday, it would give Kentucky its first winning SEC season since 1977 and represent the Wildcats’ first victory in Knoxville since ‘84.
Kentucky at Tennessee
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 12 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: SEC Network
Spread: Tennessee -13.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Which Joshua Dobbs Will Show Up?
When examining Dobbs’ 2016 season, the first word that comes to mind is inconsistent. When he has been at his best, Dobbs has performed at an elite level that rivals the top quarterbacks in the nation. But at his worst, Tennessee’s senior quarterback has been plain awful. Which begs the question, which Dobbs will show up against Kentucky?
While Dobbs can be wildly inaccurate at times, particularly when it comes to the deep ball, he typically plays very well when he isn’t under constant duress. That means Dobbs’ success, or lack thereof, could hinge on a Tennessee offensive line that has been equally inconsistent throughout 2016. Fortunately, the Volunteers’ offensive front will get to face a Kentucky pass rush that isn’t particularly formidable. The Wildcats have just 15 sacks on the season. Vanderbilt is the only SEC team with fewer.
This matchup bodes well for Dobbs’ chances to locate open targets as well. Kentucky is 64th in the FBS and No. 10 in the SEC against the pass, giving up 227 yards per game. There are certainly no guarantees that the Tennessee passing game will be hitting on all cylinders on Saturday. However, Dobbs’ prospects for success appear promising against a fairly mediocre Kentucky pass defense.
2. Kentucky’s Potent Run Game vs. Tennessee’s Thin Defense
The Kentucky rushing attack has been nothing to sneeze at throughout 2016. The Wildcats currently rank fifth in the SEC and No. 31 nationally with 216 rushing yards per game. But thanks to the emergence of true freshman running back Benny Snell Jr., to go along with the implementation of the aptly named “Wildcat” offense, Kentucky has been piling up yards on the ground recently. Over the last three games, UK’s offense is averaging 275 rushing yards, as both Snell and Stanley “Boom” Williams are among the top rushers in the SEC.
It’s highly probable that the Wildcats will continue their recent assault on opposing SEC defenses again on Saturday. Tennessee’s defense has struggled with tackling and stopping the run in general, as the Volunteers are giving up 192 rushing yards per game. That places them eighth in the SEC and in the bottom half (No. 83) of the FBS. To make matters worse, Tennessee will be hard-pressed to compensate for a severe rash of injuries to its defensive front in recent weeks. Kentucky will look to take full advantage of the Vols’ thin defense and control the clock with a heavy dose of Snell and Williams.
3. Do Not Discount the Tennessee Ground Game
Injuries and tough matchups have made it difficult for the Volunteers to run the ball. Tennessee is averaging 167 rushing yards per game, which puts them 10th in the SEC (75th nationally). The loss of Jalen Hurd doesn’t help matters either, but the Volunteers are still capable of putting up big numbers on the ground game on Saturday.
Tennessee seems to have already found a worthy replacement for Hurd in sophomore running back John Kelly. The explosive Kelly has looked every bit the part of a top-tier SEC back so far, averaging close to eight yards per carry. It also appears that prized junior running back Alvin Kamara will make his return to the Tennessee backfield this week after missing the last two contests with a knee injury. Dobbs’ dual-threat ability, combined with Kelly and Kamara, should provide the Vols with a trio of capable weapons that could pay huge dividends against a leaky Kentucky run defense. The Wildcats rank No. 92 in the country and are near the bottom (12th) in the SEC against the run, giving up 199 rushing yards per game.
A depleted Tennessee defensive front will almost certainly struggle to contain a potent Kentucky rushing attack. But the Wildcats cannot afford to be completely one-dimensional on offense. They will need help from quarterback Stephen Johnson and the passing game, while keeping sack leader Derek Barnett at bay. Kentucky also can’t afford to have the costly turnovers (-10 turnover margin) that have been commonplace for this team. The Volunteers have been fairly generous in that regard as well, but unlike Kentucky, Tennessee actually has an opportunistic defense that has been far better at balancing its turnover margin.
While Mark Stoops’ defense has shown enough improvement to keep the Volunteers from dropping 50-plus points this time around, as they have in each of the last two matchups, the Wildcats still have plenty of weaknesses on that side of the ball that can be exploited. It just so happens that those weaknesses matchup favorably for Tennessee’s offense. But it’s still falls to the Vols to take advantage of them and to avoid getting off to yet another slow start.
Kentucky’s running game gives the Wildcats a fighting chance to leave Neyland Stadium with a huge win. But when it’s all said and done, Tennessee has just enough firepower to get past Kentucky and keep its SEC East title hopes intact.
Prediction: Tennessee 31, Kentucky 30
Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.