The Kentucky Wildcats (5-2, 2-2 SEC) and Tennessee Volunteers (3-4, 0-4 SEC) were on two completely different trajectories prior to last week. But they now share something in common after suffering identical 45-7 beatings at the hands of SEC West opponents. While no one was really shocked by Tennessee’s loss to Alabama in Tuscaloosa, the Wildcats' loss at Mississippi State in blowout fashion came as a huge surprise, especially coming off a bye week.
Kentucky will attempt to get back on track as it returns home to Kroger Field to take on arch-rival Tennessee. Mark Stoop’s Wildcats would become bowl eligible for the second consecutive season with a win over the Vols. A victory would also get them back above the .500 mark in the SEC. But wins have not exactly come easy for the Wildcats in this series. The Volunteers have won 31 of the last 32 meetings, with each of the last five contests decided by fairly wide margins.
However, this isn’t your typical Tennessee team. The Volunteers have lost four of their last five games, they remain winless in the SEC, and the Tennessee offense has now gone 14 consecutive quarters without finding the end zone. The constant chatter regarding head coach Butch Jones’ future (or lack thereof) on Rocky Top further complicates matters. And to top it all off, running back John Kelly has been suspended for Saturday’s game, leaving the Volunteers without their best weapon on offense.
The Vols enter this pivotal game with the deck clearly stacked against them. That said, Kentucky may be in the early stages of a downward spiral of its own following last week’s embarrassing loss to Mississippi State. It should make for a compelling matchup.
Tennessee at Kentucky
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 28 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: SEC Network
Spread: Kentucky -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Life without John Kelly
Kelly has been the life-blood of the Tennessee offense throughout the 2017 season. So, it’s safe to assume that the Tennessee ground game could be in for a serious challenge without him, particularly against a Kentucky run defense that ranks third in the SEC, giving up just 123.6 yards per game.
But there is hope, as a talented trio of young Tennessee running backs attempts to fill the void. Ty Chandler, Carlin Fils-Aime and Tim Jordan have combined to average 5.1 yards per carry on the year. And while the Wildcats’ run defense can be a handful, it has shown a vulnerable side in each of the last two games, giving up almost 500 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Kentucky allowed just 370 rushing yards and four touchdowns in its first five games of the season. Dual-threat quarterback Jarrett Guarantano may also be able to capitalize against a Kentucky defense that allowed Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald to run wild last week, racking up 115 rushing yards and two scores on the ground.
2. Kentucky run game vs. Tennessee run defense
While the Kentucky rushing attack has been inconsistent and somewhat of a disappointment this season, it should provide the Wildcats offense with its best avenue for success on Saturday. Tennessee ranks among the worst teams in the nation (No. 122 of 129 FBS teams) when it comes to stopping the run, giving up 247 rushing yards per game.
The Vols have been particularly generous in the latter stages of games when their lack of depth up front starts to reveal itself. Look for Kentucky to lean heavily on Benny Snell Jr. in an effort to wear down the Tennessee defense and expose this weakness. Snell is coming off his worst performance of the season, rushing for just 18 yards against Mississippi State. But he should be able to rebound nicely against a leaky Tennessee run defense.
3. Turnover battle
The turnover battle could loom large in this matchup, and it is an area that heavily favors the Wildcats. Kentucky ranks near the top of the SEC in turnover margin at plus-six on the season. In seven games, the Wildcats have forced 13 turnovers (six interceptions, seven fumble recoveries). They have committed just seven turnovers in that span.
Tennessee ranks near the bottom of the SEC in turnover margin at minus-three. The Volunteers have committed 11 turnovers on the season, while forcing just eight. Kelly’s absence will leave the Vols to rely on relatively inexperienced running backs, possibly making the Vols more susceptible to turnovers against Kentucky’s opportunistic defense. And Guarantano, who also lacks experience, will need to be particularly aware of Kentucky safety Mark Edwards, who is tied for second in the SEC with three interceptions. Ball security will be of the utmost importance for Tennessee on Saturday night.
The Tennessee offense should finally end its touchdown drought against a Kentucky defense that has struggled mightily in recent weeks. That said, I don’t see the Volunteers suddenly springing to life and putting a bunch of points on the scoreboard, particularly without John Kelly. This game is shaping up to look a lot like Tennessee’s matchup against South Carolina — a game in which Tennessee hangs around, but ultimately wears down in the end. Kentucky has a tendency to allow teams to hang around as well. Regardless, this is probably the best opportunity the Wildcats are going to have to finally get over the hump against Tennessee. It won’t be pretty, but Kentucky wins a close one in front of the home crowd, possibly putting the final nail in Butch Jones’ coffin in the process.
Prediction: Kentucky 20, Tennessee 17
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.