They might be an even bigger deal that normal in this weekend’s Tennessee-Kentucky matchup. The Vols come into the game as at least a touchdown favorite and have the momentum and history as the Wildcats come to Knoxville.
But Kentucky has the decided edge in turnover margin on the season, and that should always make a favored team nervous.
“They do a great job of taking the ball away,” said Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian of Kentucky, which comes into the game with 13 interceptions, six recovered fumbles and a plus-8 turnover margin, good for third in the SEC so far this season. “We always stress ball security, we have since day one. It’s always been at the top of our priority list and it will continue to be, but we’ve definitely placed extra emphasis on it this week.”
The Vols have done a better job with ball security in the last two conference games, turning it over a total of just three times against South Carolina and Alabama after coughing it up a total of seven times in the previous two conference games against Ole Miss and Florida.
Sitting at an even turnover margin for the year, the defense would like to see that number climb into the positives.
“I think the goal is to cause a lot of them and to not give up any,” said defensive coordinator John Jancek. “But the reality is, I think we’ve forced 17 turnovers this year, and offensively we’ve given up 17. So, we’re at zero. Everybody’s working hard to improve turnover ratio, and it is a big telling mark in a game.
“That’s the number one statistic in determining who wins and losses football games is turnovers and we’re trying to keep the ball and our opponents are trying to get it back and vice versa, so that’s always going to be true.”
That’s especially true this weekend as the Vols look to avoid the upset.
Towles can hurt Vols in multiple ways: Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles has been somewhat of a breakout player in the conference this year as he’s gone from relatively unknown outside of Kentucky into the conversation as one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC East.
The 6-5, 240-pound quarterback, who was recruited by Butch Jones and staff when they were at Cincinnati, has completed 198-of-338 passes for 2,374 yards, 14 touchdowns and six interceptions on the season. He’s also added 266 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.
“The thing that I think Towles does a really good job of is in the throw game, if it’s not there, he takes the ball and tucks it and takes off and he’ll hurt you with his feet,” said Jancek. “I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen him in third-and-longs, you know, if it’s not there, tuck the ball and go pick up a first down. So, we have a huge challenge in all areas.”
“He is a winner,” added Jones. “He has won numerous state (high school) championships. So it is going to be a great challenge for us.”
Stoops’ high praise for Dupree: Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops had extremely high praise for his star defensive end, Bud Dupree. Ranked as a potential first-round pick by many analysts, Dupree was put in the same company as some of the elite defensive linemen that Stoops has coached at Florida State, Arizona and Miami that include Bjoern Werner, Tank Carradine, Jerome McDougle and many other future NFL players.
“We’re doing an awful lot with him right now because he is so versatile,” Stoops recently told NFL.com. “He drops half the time and rushes half the time, so his production as far as sacks and tackles for loss aren’t as high as they would be if we were just playing four down all the time.
“That’s what’s going to help him at the next level. I think he’ll be an outside ‘backer who will really be able to do anything they want at the next level. I think that’s why he’ll be a high pick.”