Will it be tricks or treats in Neyland Stadium on Saturday night when the Tennessee Volunteers host the Kentucky Wildcats in a pivotal SEC East matchup? It’ll be another electric atmosphere in Knoxville as the Vols will be wearing all black – including black helmets – for the first time in over 90 years. After bludgeoning in-state UT-Martin last week, Tennessee will look to set the stage for a Top 3 showdown next week in Athens, Georgia. But they must first handle business against a healthy Wildcats team coming into the game off a bye weekend.
Vols Host Kentucky: Three Things To Look For
Kentucky has disappointed fans during the first half of the season, with back-to-back losses to Mississippi and South Carolina dampening the expectations in Lexington. But the Wildcats come into this game healthier than at any point this season. That includes All-SEC running back Chris Rodriguez and potential NFL first-rounder Will Levis‘ shoulder. Tennessee will face a stiff test against Kentucky, that’s for sure.
Keep Kentucky’s Rushing Attack In Check
The biggest disappointment for Kentucky this season has been a disappointing rushing attack. The Wildcats are currently the second-worst rushing team in the SEC, averaging 113 yards per game. They’re improving, though, as they’ve increased their running totals every game this season and torched Mississippi State for 239 yards on the ground in their last game two weeks ago. Rodriguez missed Kentucky’s first four games, but his return couldn’t save the Wildcats in their two losses. That’s because the offensive line hasn’t been able to control the line of scrimmage in any game this season except for their last game against Mississippi State.
Tennessee’s defensive front will likely have to rely on just the front four to bottle up the powerful Rodriguez. If they can manage that task, the Vols’ defense can avoid a repeat of last season, where Kentucky scored 42 on the Vols behind 225 yards rushing and a crushing 46:08-to-13:52 time of possession advantage.
What to Look For: Fewer than 150 Kentucky total rushing yards
Limit Kentucky’s Intermediate Passing Attack
Kentucky will look to exploit Tennessee’s biggest weakness, the intermediate passing game. That accomplishes two things: it mitigates the aggressiveness of Tennessee’s linebackers, especially Jeremy Banks, and it helps Levis avoid lengthy pocket plays. Look for Kentucky to use Rodriguez and JuTahn McClain out of the backfield and tight ends Jordan Dingle and Brendan Bates. Tennessee will take their chances in the vertical passing game and hope that the defensive line and a blitzing linebacker — or two — can get to Levis enough times to stymie a couple of drives.
If the Wildcats can work the intermediate passing game effectively, which will open up their running game, the Tennessee defense might be in for another 45-minute night.
What to Look For: >50 total receiving yards from Rodriguez, McClain, Dingle, and Bates.
A lot of folks wrote Kentucky off after their loss to South Carolina. But Kentucky has had two weeks to prepare for this game. And the Wildcats, victims to Tennessee in their two best seasons under Mark Stoops, would love nothing more than to knock Tennessee off of its newfound perch. Vols quarterback Hendon Hooker has stated that Tennessee still hasn’t played its best game — and he’s right. In their biggest win, Hooker had two turnovers that led to one converted touchdown and one defensive score by Alabama.
Tennessee won’t necessarily need that elusive perfect game on Saturday, but it can’t look ahead to Georgia. Tennessee must execute in all three phases of the game — especially where they own the advantage on offense and special teams, and win both the turnover battle and the penalty contest. With the way Tennessee’s offensive line is playing, it’s unlikely Kentucky can stop the Tennessee scheme. If the offense and special teams can play a clean game the Vols will be in good shape for win number eight on the season.
Then, and only then, can everyone look forward to the first CFP rankings release and a potential one-versus-two matchup in Athens the following week.
What to Look For: Vols + margin in turnovers and fewer penalties.
Vols host Kentucky: The Last Word
Head Coach Josh Heupel has kept Tennessee focused all season amid distractions and expectations anew. The team has been prepared for each and every game they’ve played under Heupel. The Vols will also be healthier, with Gerlad Mincey and Cedric Tillman likely back for the Vols and potentially Kamal Hadden in the secondary, which will be huge for Tennessee. Kentucky is a good football team and deserves respect, but there’s no reason to think Tennessee won’t be ready for a big divisional game.
It gets dark early for Big Blue Nation and its all treats for the Big Orange.