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Preview: Tennessee vs. Kentucky

Butch Jones-1Tennessee (4-5) vs. Kentucky (5-5)

Saturday, 4 p.m. ET

Neyland Stadium (102,455) • Knoxville, Tenn.

TV: SEC Network

Series Record: Tennessee leads 76-24-9

 Setting the table

This game will have somewhat of a playoff feel for these two teams in terms of them reaching their goals for the season. Kentucky, coming off a two-win season in 2013, can clinch bowl eligibility with a win. Tennessee needs two more wins on the season to do the same, but with an overmatched Vanderbilt team still on the schedule, a win on Saturday would put the Vols in ideal position to return to the postseason for the first time since 2010. Tennessee has absolutely owned this series in the modern era, winning 28 of its last 29 against the Wildcats. But this Kentucky team is better than many they’ve seen, and the young Vols are still figuring out how to win on a consistent basis. Tennessee comes into this game favored and with several matchups it can expose. But don’t expect the Wildcats to go quietly in this one as coach Mark Stoops has instilled a higher level of competitiveness and has upped the skill level for Kentucky.

 Who has the edge?

When Tennessee throws…

Somewhat overlooked by all the running he did at South Carolina was the fact that Joshua Dobbs also threw for over 300 yards and made some clutch throws for the Vols. Pig Howard stepped up big in that game and the Vols will need him again against Kentucky. They’ll also need healthier versions of Marquez North and Von Pearson to make plays. The Wildcats are fifth in the SEC in passing defense, giving up 190 yards per game. And one advanced stat of interest: Kentucky is No. 1 among Power-5 conference schools in completion percentage allowed on passes over 10 yards. Opponents have completed just 27.6% of those passes. So it won’t be easy for the Vols, but if UK has to stack the box for the run, there will be opportunities. It will be critical that the Vols account for Bud Dupree off the edge as well.  Edge: Slightly to Tennessee

When Tennessee runs…Jalen Hurd-1

Here’s where the game can be won for the Vols. Kentucky is 13th in the SEC in rushing defense, allowing 200 yards per game on the ground. The Wildcats are coming off a week in which Georgia ran for over 300 yards in Lexington. The Vols should have a lot of opportunities here. Since Dobbs took the helm, the Vols have rushed for over 500 yards in less than two full games. Kentucky has given up over 450 on the ground over its past two games. With the way Jalen Hurd is running, the added dimension of Dobbs’ athleticism and Marlin Lane available to play as well, this is a recipe for the Vols to rush for 200+ in this one. Edge: Strongly to Tennessee

When Kentucky passes…

The bad news for Tennessee? The Vols have given up 663 yards worth of passing over the past two games. The good news? Nobody named Cooper (or anybody as explosive as Amari Cooper or Pharoh Cooper) will be stepping on the field for Kentucky. But the Wildcats do have some weapons, including three receivers – Ryan Timmons, Demarco Robinson and Javess Blue – that all have at least 20 receptions and 385 yards on the season. Quarterback Patrick Towles isn’t a finished product, but he has NFL size and a strong arm. Accuracy hasn’t been his strength all season, though he generally makes good decisions and can run around to buy more time when needed. The key for Tennessee will be to generate a pass rush, keep contain and then not give up the massive plays in the secondary. Edge: Slightly to Kentucky

When Kentucky runs…

What had generally been a strength for the Vols has been a big weakness the last two weeks, as the run defense has given up 431 total yards. But again, level of competition played into that. Kentucky uses a backfield-by-committee approach, but freshman Boom Williams is starting to emerge as a strong option. He had 10 carries for 100 yards and a 56-yard touchdown run against Georgia last week. Statistically speaking, the 11th-ranked rushing attack in the SEC shouldn’t be a massive challenge for the Vols. Tennessee, however, will have to prove that it can stop the run again after being shredded the last two weeks. Edge: Even

Special teams…

Very similar numbers across the board in the kicking game. Williams and Robinson are both threats in the return game, though kick coverage has been strong for the Vols all season. The punting and kicking stats are within mere percentage points for both teams. But Kentucky’s kick/punt coverage has been poor and that’s an area the Vols can expose.  Edge: Tennessee

 What Kentucky is thinking

We haven’t played as well the past several weeks, but we still have a lot to play for. When you look at the numbers in this game, Tennessee really hasn’t done much better than us this season and, in fact, we have the edge in several areas and we have the better record. Dobbs has been great the past two weeks – we can’t deny that. But he’s human and we have more film on him than the last two opponents did. Plus we saw him last year. We’ll stack the box, play disciplined football, win the turnover margin and get win No. 6.

 What Tennessee is thinking

We have every reason to be confident in this game. We’re playing better than Kentucky right now, we have owned them historically and we’re the more rested and prepared team coming off the bye week. The win at South Carolina was so important to our program, but it doesn’t mean nearly as much if we don’t capitalize on the opportunity it’s given us. We have a chance to run the table, but we don’t want to leave our bowl fate in Missouri’s hands next week. We’ll run the ball until Kentucky stops us, pick our spots in the passing game and avoid the catastrophic plays on defense. If we do all that, we’re one big step closer to returning to the postseason.

 What RTI is thinking

Statistically speaking, there isn’t a much of a gap between these teams. Everything from total offense to total defense to scores against common opponents are relatively similar between these two squads. Playing at home, where Tennessee has defeated Kentucky 14 straight times, gives the Vols somewhat of an edge. But it’s really some of the other intangibles that make us all fairly confident that Tennessee wins this one on Saturday. Things like momentum, fatigue and confidence should all play into Tennessee’s favor. The Vols being favored by about a touchdown makes sense, though we could easily see Tennessee winning more comfortably than that.

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