Surging Vols come to Lexington to face rival Wildcats with both teams looking to get a step closer to bowl eligibility
Kroger Field will provide the backdrop for Saturday night’s SEC East tilt between the Kentucky Wildcats and the Tennessee Volunteers. Jeremy Pruitt’s Vols (4-5, 2-3 SEC) will make their way to Lexington riding the momentum of back-to-back blowout wins. A strong defensive effort led the way in Tennessee’s most recent triumph — a 30-7 victory over UAB last Saturday night in Knoxville. The Vols racked up three sacks and forced four turnovers against the Blazers, including three interceptions by sophomore defensive back Bryce Thompson, who joined linebacker Daniel Bituli as the second Tennessee player in a row to garner SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors. The Volunteers will now set their sights on getting to .500 on the season and drawing one step closer to bowl eligibility with an all-important road win against the Wildcats on Saturday night.
Fresh off an open date, Mark Stoops' Wildcats (4-4, 2-4) enter Saturday’s matchup against the Vols trending in a positive direction as well. They have now won two of their last three games, including an impressive blowout win over division foe Missouri at home in their most recent contest. Kentucky leaned on a stifling defense and nearly 300 yards and four touchdowns from the run game in its 29-7 dismantling of Mizzou. Lynn Bowden Jr. ran for 204 yards and two scores in the win to earn co-SEC Offensive Player of the Week accolades in Week 9, alongside Tennessee’s Jauan Jennings. The Cats will now turn their attention to the rival Vols in search of a much-needed fifth win to remain in bowl contention and perhaps earn a little payback for last season as well.
Saturday night’s contest will mark the 115th meeting all-time between the two schools. Tennessee holds a commanding 80-25-9 lead in the series. The Vols also have won 32 of the last 34 meetings, including a 24-7 victory over No. 11-ranked Kentucky last season in Knoxville. However, the Wildcats did come out on top against the Vols by a score of 29-26 in their last meeting in Lexington.
Tennessee at Kentucky
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Tennessee -1
When Tennessee Has the Ball
Who will be playing quarterback for the Vols on Saturday night? That’s the biggest question surrounding the Tennessee offense. J.T. Shrout has been the first signal-caller to take the field in each of Tennessee’s last two games, with Jarrett Guarantano ultimately taking the majority of snaps in those matchups in spite of a broken bone in his non-throwing hand. We could see something similar against Kentucky, although a healthy Brian Maurer could change that plan dramatically. Maurer, who did not make an expected return from injury last week, could return in some capacity for the Volunteers this week. Head coach Jeremy Pruitt prefers to keep it a mystery, stating: "All three guys are taking reps (in practice), so we’ll continue to look at that and see who gives us the best chance in Lexington."
Regardless of which Vols quarterback takes the field on Saturday night, he's probably going to have his work cut out for him against a Kentucky pass defense that allows just 180.5 yards per game through the air (third in the SEC, 14th in the FBS). It also could be a tall order for a beat-up Tennessee offensive line to keep monstrous Kentucky defensive lineman Calvin Taylor (among others) out of the backfield.
Conversely, the Kentucky secondary is sure to have its hands full trying to keep tabs on a standout group of Tennessee receivers, most notably Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway. Jennings (47 rec., 722 yards, 8 TDs) is the heart and soul of the Tennessee offense. Callaway leads all SEC receivers in yards per reception (21.3).
While Tennessee’s run game hasn’t been anything to write home about this season, a porous Kentucky run defense that has surrendered 17 rushing touchdowns in just eight games and allows 175 rushing yards per contest (12th in the SEC) provides the Vols with a favorable matchup. Tennessee running back Ty Chandler, who is averaging 5.2 yards per carry over his last three games, stands to benefit most.
The red zone could be Tennessee’s biggest adversary offensively on Saturday night. The Vols have scored just 14 touchdowns in 32 trips inside the red zone this season, and touchdowns will be at a premium against a Kentucky defense that has been solid in that area. Meanwhile, field goals in the red zone (and beyond) are almost a certainty thanks to Tennessee kicker Brent Cimaglia, who has connected on an SEC-best 18-of-20 attempts with a long of 53 yards.
When Kentucky Has the Ball
Lynn Bowden Jr. will undoubtedly be the centerpiece of Kentucky’s offense on Saturday night. The wide receiver-turned-quarterback leads Kentucky with 598 rushing yards and four touchdowns on the ground, while still leading the Wildcats in receptions (30) and receiving yards (348). More importantly, the do-it-all athlete leads the SEC in both rushing yards per attempt (7.97) and all-purpose yards (1,199). And in conjunction with running backs A.J. Rose (508 rushing yards, 3 TDs) and Kavosiey Smoke (341, 4), Bowden spearheads one of the most dangerous ground attacks in the SEC, one that averages 201.4 yards per game.
The only area in which Bowden has not shined for this offense is in the passing game, where he has completed just 15-of-37 pass attempts for 188 yards and one touchdown. To be fair, throwing the football has been challenging with each of Kentucky’s last two games played in rain-soaked conditions. Regardless, Bowden’s skills as a passer leave plenty to be desired under any circumstance.
That could pay dividends for a Tennessee defense that can focus most of its attention on stopping Bowden and Co. in the run game. And while that’s easier said than done, the Vols’ much-improved run defense has held each of its last four opponents well below their season rushing averages, including top-tier SEC ground attacks in Alabama, Mississippi State, and South Carolina. Tennessee also limited an extremely potent Kentucky ground attack to just 77 rushing yards and no touchdowns in last year’s game. It will be interesting to see how this matchup shakes out on Saturday night.
There are plenty of reasons to like the Wildcats in this matchup. Kentucky will have the fresher football team coming off a bye, which also provided an extra week to prepare for the Vols. Kentucky will reap the benefits of home-field advantage as well.
That being said, Tennessee clearly has a mental edge after dominating this rivalry for the better part of six decades now. The Vols also are in the midst of playing their best football of the season, particularly on defense, where Jeremy Pruitt should have a stellar game plan in place to help neutralize Lynn Bowden Jr. and a one-dimensional Kentucky offense. That will be the difference in what likely will be a hard-fought win for the surging Vols on the road.
Prediction: Tennessee 20, Kentucky 17
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.