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2015 Opponent Look Ahead: Kentucky

Joshua Dobbs-1-2

Tennessee at Kentucky

When: Saturday, October 31st, 2015

Where: Lexington, Ky. (Commonwealth Stadium)

Early line: Not listed

Kentucky at a glance:

Head Coach: Mark Stoops (7-17 through 2 years at Kentucky)

Conference: SEC

All-time record: 587–599–44

2014 results: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)

Returning starters: 15: 6 (offense), 9 (defense)

2014 Overview: 

When you take a 10,000-foot view at Kentucky’s 2014 campaign, you can summarize that the ‘Cats were a victim of their own early success, at least to an extent.

Because the biggest thing that many remember is “the collapse” – namely how Kentucky, needing just one win to reach bowl eligibility, lost its last six games of the season. Some of those losses were close, like a 44-40 loss to Louisville and a respectable 20-10 defeat at the hands of Missouri. But several were in more blowout fashion with Tennessee, LSU, Georgia and Mississippi State pounding UK by an average of 29.5 points per game.

As bad as the late-season collapse was, it shouldn’t, however, completely take away from what Kentucky was able to accomplish in 2014. No, 5-7 isn’t the goal for any SEC program, but remember where UK came from – a 2-10 (0-8 SEC) campaign in 2014 that followed a 2-10 season in 2013 as well.

So while 5-7 isn’t where Mark Stoops wants to get Kentucky, it was progress. There was no postseason reward, though a win over South Carolina and close losses to Florida, Missouri and Louisville can all be seen as signs of hope that the Wildcats, which have upped the talent level the past few years with improved recruiting from Stoops, are a program on the rise.

Three early questions for the 2015 matchup: 

1. Is this a trap game for Tennessee?

The question has to be asked. For a Tennessee team with rising expectations, all the questions over the offseason have centered on if the Vols can take the next step and beat teams like Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma and even Alabama. Nobody is asking if the Vols can handle Kentucky. It’s supposed to be a given. But, despite the blowout loss to UT last year, Kentucky showed more fight overall during its 2015 campaign and certainly has the ability to stick with some SEC opponents. Tennessee will be coming off a trip to Alabama with South Carolina scheduled for the following week. Butch Jones prides himself on a week-by-week, opponent-by-opponent mindset for his team. But it’s human nature to let down and look ahead sometimes. It will be interesting to see if the Vols are 100% up for this game.

2. Can Kentucky slow the Vols down on offense after they dropped 50 on them last year?

The Vols ran over, around and through a porous Kentucky defense in 2014 on their way to a 50-16 victory. Maybe it was because the Wildcats were gassed after eight weeks without a bye heading into the Tennessee game, but even if that was a factor, it also can’t be denied that the Vols’ skill players pretty much had their way all afternoon against that UK defense. Kentucky returns nine starters on defense and has high expectations – particularly at linebacker and in the secondary, but replacing NFL draft picks Za’Darius Smith and Bud Dupree, both big parts of the front seven last year, won’t be easy. Stoops will have to make some big adjustments on that side of the ball to prevent a replay of the 2014 matchup.

3. Will Patrick Towles cause UT problems?

If you’re looking for a breakout QB candidate in the SEC that not too many are talking about, look no further than UK quarterback Patrick Towles. Of course, he has to solidify himself as Kentucky’s starter first with Drew Barker getting a look too, but most think Towles will win the job and get a chance to build on some of the solid things he did last year. He’s huge (6-5, 240), has an NFL-caliber arm and moves better than you’d think for his size. He had his ups and downs last season, but when he was on, he looked really dangerous – accounting for 391 total yards against Florida and 466 against Mississippi State. He missed part of the UT game with an injury, and didn’t have his best afternoon overall against the Vols, but with four OL returning and top receiver Ryan Timmons back, Towles is an under-the-radar threat in 2015.

How do we expect it to play out?

I’m not going to waste your time making an elaborate argument that the Wildcats have a great shot at beating the Vols. They don’t. Tennessee should win this game.

But that being said, there are very few givens in the SEC, especially when going on the road. The collapse down the stretch in 2014 is making many overlook the fact that Kentucky did take a step forward last year. A lot of key pieces are back from that team. Towles could be a sneaky pick to get some All-SEC honors at the end of the year, Timmons has a lot of upside, the O-line is experienced and Boom Williams is a big-play threat at running back.

Defensively, replacing Dupree and Smith will be tough and could hold UK back, but the return of players such as LB Josh Forrest, DL Melvin Lewis and Matt Elam and S A.J. Stamps should gives Stoops enough pieces to do a lot of what he wants on that side of the ball.

I’m expecting a more competitive contest than the 50-16 shellacking Tennessee put on Kentucky last year. But Tennessee is still the easy preseason pick in this one, and if all goes to plan, the Vols should win this one by at least a couple possessions.

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