The No. 18-ranked Kentucky Wildcats will host the Tennessee Volunteers on Saturday night in Lexington for a matchup between SEC East foes looking to get back on track.
Fresh off an open date, a rejuvenated Tennessee squad looks to rebound from back-to-back losses against Ole Miss and Alabama. In their most recent contest against the Crimson Tide, the Vols managed to pull within seven points early in the fourth quarter before ultimately running out of steam in the 52-24 road loss. Now 4-4 overall and 2-3 in SEC play, Josh Heupel's Volunteers will hit the road for the final time this season in search of their first win against a ranked opponent.
Kentucky also looks to hit the reset button following its two-game skid with losses to Georgia and Mississippi State. The Wildcats are coming off a particularly ugly performance in their 31-17 loss to Mississippi State on the road last Saturday. Bulldogs' quarterback Will Rogers picked the Kentucky defense apart with a record-setting performance while the Cats struggled offensively, turning the ball over four times. Now 6-2 overall and 4-2 in the SEC, Mark Stoops and his Wildcats will play in Lexington for the first time in almost a month, where they are a perfect 5-0 this season. A win over Tennessee on Saturday would keep them within striking distance of their first 10-win regular season since 1977 and a potential New Year's Six bowl invitation.
Tennessee holds a commanding 81-26-9 lead against Kentucky in the all-time series. However, the Wildcats dominated the Vols last season, winning 34-7 for their first victory in Knoxville since 1984. Kentucky has not beaten Tennessee in back-to-back seasons since 1976-77.
Tennessee at No. 18 Kentucky
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 6 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Pick 'em
When Tennessee Has the Ball
Quarterback Hendon Hooker commands a fast-paced Tennessee offense that averages 457.3 yards and 37.4 points per game. Hooker has quietly developed into one of the top signal-callers in the nation — completing 68.7 percent of his pass attempts for 1,578 yards with 17 touchdowns against only two interceptions. His 9.5 yards per pass attempt and 179.9 passer rating are the best in the SEC and rank top-10 nationally. Hooker can also beat you with his legs, serving as the Vols' second-leading rusher with 416 yards and four scores on the ground. He continues to lean heavily on a trio of veteran wide receivers in Velus Jones Jr. (31 rec., 453 yds., 4 TDs), Cedric Tillman (30, 446, 4), and JaVonta Payton (12, 287, 5). Payton is averaging 23.9 yards per catch and has a touchdown in five of his last six games. Jones also excels as a return specialist and ranks fourth in the SEC with 948 all-purpose yards. Tennessee's offensive line has been the weak link in pass protection, allowing a conference-high 28 sacks. Nevertheless, Hooker and Co. hope to pick up where Rogers and Mississippi State left off last week. The Tennessee passing attack is capable of doing just that. But it won't be easy against a bitter Kentucky pass defense in search of redemption.
The most intriguing matchup comes on the ground, where a Tennessee rushing attack that ranks 13th nationally, averaging 226 yards per game, will be paired against a Kentucky run defense that ranks 23rd in the country, giving up just 116 yards per contest. Running backs Tiyon Evans (80 att., 516 yds., 6 TDs) and Jabari Small (72, 332, 3) spearhead that effort for Tennessee, along with Hooker at quarterback. And while the Vols' offensive line has struggled in pass protection, they have had no problem making room in the run game. The likely return of Cade Mays (leg injury) at right tackle should further help that effort on Saturday. On the other side of the line of scrimmage lies a stout Kentucky defense led by linebackers Jacquez Jones (team-high 64 tackles) and DeAndre Square (61 tackles, 8.5 for a loss), along with defensive end Josh Paschal (team-high 11.5 TFLs). That said, the Wildcats are pretty beat up defensively and have struggled a bit against the run since losing defensive line standouts Marquan McCall and Octavious Oxendine to injury. Oxendine is done for the year, and McCall is not listed on Kentucky's depth chart this week. Regardless, it should make for an interesting strength vs. strength matchup.
When Kentucky Has the Ball
A Kentucky offense that averages 366.3 yards and 27 points per contest has had a tough go of it in its last two matchups against top-flight defenses in Georgia and Mississippi State. The Wildcats should be able to fare slightly better at home against a Tennessee defense that gives up 393.8 yards and 26.5 points per game.
Quarterback Will Levis leads a Kentucky passing game that has been hit-or-miss this season. Levis has completed a respectable 66.3 percent of his pass attempts for 1,476 yards with 14 touchdowns. But his nine interceptions, including three last week, are concerning. Levis doesn't have a ton of weapons at his disposal in the passing game, but he does have a dynamic playmaker in go-to wide receiver Wan'Dale Robinson, who ranks second in the SEC in receptions (58), third in receiving yards (659), and eighth in touchdown catches (5). Wide receiver Josh Ali, who returned last week after missing some time, also is a threat as both a pass catcher and return specialist. A reliable Kentucky offensive line has been solid in pass protection, allowing just 13 sacks in eight games. They will face a Tennessee pass defense that allows a fairly generous 249.4 yards per game through the air, which ranks 13th in the SEC and 94th nationally. However, in terms of yards per attempt (6.7) allowed, the Vols rank a far more respectable fifth in the SEC and 32nd nationally. So, it's unlikely that Kentucky will string together many explosive passing plays, but sustained drives could be a possibility given Tennessee's inability to get off the field. The Vols are next to last in the conference in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert 46 percent of their opportunities.
The question is can Chris Rodriguez Jr. and the Kentucky ground attack return to form after a pair of lackluster performances? Rodriguez is the SEC's second-leading rusher with 809 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. But he has struggled mightily of late, managing 41 yards in his last two games combined. Fellow running back Kavosiey Smoke hasn't fared much better. Granted, the Wildcats faced two of the best run defenses in the country in those matchups. And according to Stoops, Rodriguez has been dealing with some kind of injury, although the head coach refused to elaborate.
That could also help explain Rodriguez's recent ball security issues. The good news is that the Kentucky ground game should find running room a little easier to come by against a more forgiving Tennessee run defense. And that includes Levis, who may not be known for his mobility but has three rushing touchdowns on the season and is capable of making things happen with his legs.
The Vols allow 144.4 rushing yards per game (seventh in the SEC, 62nd in the FBS), but those numbers are slightly deceiving, as Tennessee is yielding a respectable 3.6 yards per carry (34th nationally). This defense also leads the nation in tackles for a loss with 8.8 per game. So, the Kentucky rushing attack will still have its work cut out for it on Saturday night. Linebacker Jeremy Banks has been the anchor of the Vols' defense this season, leading the team in tackles (60), tackles for a loss (9), and sacks (4.5).
Kentucky will benefit from playing in front of a sellout crowd at Kroger Field. And the Wildcats will undoubtedly be fired up after last week's embarrassing loss to Mississippi State. If the Wildcats can take care of the football, they should come out on top. But that's a big "if" for a Kentucky team that has the worst turnover margin in the country at minus-12 (4 gained, 16 lost). UK also comes into this matchup pretty beat up on both sides of the football. Meanwhile, the Volunteers look to be in much better shape on the injury front following last week's bye. Tennessee also is a better team than its record would suggest. It truly could go either way, but the Volunteers currently appear to have a slight edge over the dinged-up, turnover-prone Cats.
Prediction: Tennessee 28, Kentucky 24
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— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.