I picked Tennessee to beat Kentucky before the season, but it was easy to question that as the season unfolded. When Kentucky sat at 5-1 with only a cheap loss at Florida in the loss column, it looked like the Wildcats might have the edge over the Vols this year.
But as the season has played out, I’ve felt better about my pick. Kentucky has come back down to earth after four straight losses and Tennessee seems to be stabilizing with Joshua Dobbs at quarterback and the offense now clicking at a higher level than it had all season. So I’m fine to go full circle and again feel confident in my preseason pick for this game.
I don’t think it’s a gimme for the Vols, however. Mark Stoops has Kentucky believing more than the Wildcat teams of the past and there are several really, really good football players on that team. Defensive end/linebacker Bud Dupree is one of those. Tennessee’s offensive tackles have struggled against athletic speed rushers all season, and though Dobbs has the ability to escape, one huge play from Dupree could change the game.
I also like Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles. He’s one of those players that has his flaws, but could go off on any given Saturday for big numbers. He doesn’t have tons of help around him, but the Kentucky offense has upgraded its overall speed and athleticism since last season.
At the end of the day, I’m just not sure that Kentucky will be able to stop Tennessee’s offense on a consistent basis if it clicks like it has for much of the last two weeks. Dobbs might come crashing down to earth at some point after a couple strong outings, but Kentucky’s defense doesn’t seem like the most likely candidate to cause that. Their passing defense has been respectable, but their run defense has been getting gashed.
That’s really good news for Jalen Hurd, Marlin Lane and Dobbs. I think UT gets 200+ yards on the ground this week and if Kentucky does stack the box to contain the Vols, that should open up opportunities in the passing game. Kentucky will score several times, but I think the Vols match and exceed that throughout the course of the evening. If the Vols hang onto the ball, I think they win it with a little bit of room to spare, though any W would suffice for the Vols. Pick: Tennessee 35-24
MVP: Tennessee RB Jalen Hurd
Perhaps slightly overshadowed by Dobbs the last couple of weeks, Hurd has been playing better and better and he could be due for a breakout game against the Wildcats. He accounted for 183 yards of total offense against South Carolina and I think he can hit the 200-yard mark against Kentucky. If he does that, the Vols will have a fantastic chance in this one.
Pick: I’m going to keep it fairly short this week with my explanation because this game is pretty simple to understand. Tennessee is more talented, more refreshed, playing at home and riding some momentum on offense that this program hasn’t seen in years. Kentucky started this season strong but they’ve come back down to Earth in recent weeks as they started playing the real meat of their schedule. With the exception of drives heading into halftime and to end the game in which the clock ran out, Georgia scored a touchdown on every single offensive possession last Saturday in Lexington.
Every. Single. One.
If Tennessee can protect the football and limit mistakes, there really is no reason to think that a score in the mid-30’s to mid-40’s is out of reach today. This will mark Kentucky’s eighth straight game without a bye and their defense appears to be exhausted. I expect Joshua Dobbs and Jalen Hurd to have another huge day running the football and Dobbs with have the opportunity to make some plays through the air if and when Kentucky decides they’ve had enough of the run and tries to stack the box. The quick passing game to the receivers should also make for some big plays today. Tennessee’s talent at receiver will be too much for Kentucky’s defensive backs and I think the Vols have the opportunity to turn easy, short throws into chunks of yardage and touchdowns.
Defensively, Tennessee needs to get back to what was working, stop trying to out-think themselves and just play football. Kentucky does some things well on offense, but not a lot of things. If the Vols can keep Patrick Towles in the pocket and send some pressure up the middle, the redshirt sophomore has a tendency to panic and loses his normal velocity and accuracy on the football. Keeping him in the pocket and being prepared for designed quarterback runs will be a huge focus for the Vol defense today. Kentucky also likes to throw some ‘wildcat’ package looks at teams – and we saw how well that worked for South Carolina with Pharoh Cooper – so Tennessee will need to be mindful of JoJo Kemp taking snaps for direct runs, sweep handoffs or even the trick plays they have out of that look; including double reverses and throwback options with Towles. Do that, and the victory is all but assured.
Tennessee has a lot to play for and they took full advantage of the bye week to prepare for this game. Kentucky may put up a good fight for a quarter or two, but I expect the Vols to pull away late. Pick: Big Orange 38-17
MVP: Tennessee Quarterback Josh Dobbs
I think Astro-Dobbs does it again. Kentucky’s defense suits everything that Dobbs likes to do and I think he puts in another huge day at the office in this game. Kentucky has trouble against teams that feature a strong rushing attack, and my guess is that they’ll try to key on Jalen Hurd in an attempt to try and slow him down which should open up a lot of options for Dobbs. Tennessee’s receivers are the healthiest that they have been since the Oklahoma game and Dobbs has now had nearly a month of working with them as the starter. Look for that familiarity to pay off this week. I’ll set the over/under on yards for Dobbs this week at 350 and take the over.
I had this ranked as the 9th toughest, and easiest SEC, game on Tennessee’s schedule prior to the season. That was before we all saw the train wreck that is Vanderbilt football, but I still think it’ll be Tennessee’s second easiest SEC contest. Kentucky is headed in the right direction under Mark Stoops. They return 16 starters (the most in 14 years) and, thanks to Stoops’ work on the recruiting trail, UK’s talent level is definitely on the rise.
That said, it’s still Kentucky. The Wildcats haven’t bested Tennessee in Knoxville since 1984, they’ve won just two SEC games since 2011 and haven’t won an SEC road game since 2009. Tennessee won’t lose this one.
Kentucky’s run defense is atrocious. If Tennessee attacks the perimeter on the ground like they did against South Carolina, the Wildcats won’t be able to stop them. The Vol offense needs to be disciplined, though, and take what the defense gives them. Forcing the ball down the field would play directly into the strength of Kentucky’s defense. Joshua Dobbs will have a chance to beat them with the short passing game and needs to capitalize on those opportunities.
Wildcat quarterback Patrick Towles has a big arm and decent mobility. Tennessee’s ends will have to contain him. Look for defensive coordinator John Jancek to dial up some pressure up the middle. Towles struggles to keep his eyes downfield when blitzed. If the Vols can pressure him, it’ll be a long day for the boys in blue. Kentucky has scored just 6.5 points per game in their last two road SEC games. They’ll do better than that today, but Tennessee’s defense is rested and should regain some of its early season form. Pick: Volunteers 34-17
MVP: Vol Defensive End Derek Barnett
Barnett ranks among the league leaders in sacks and tackles for loss and should add to both of those numbers today. The Wildcats rank second to last in sacks allowed and last in tackles for loss allowed in the SEC. Barnett has the speed to chase down Towles and Kentucky doesn’t have anyone who can block him one-on-one. It should be another big day for Tennessee’s talented freshman.