Tennessee (3-4) at Kentucky (4-3)
Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET
Commonwealth Stadium (61,000) • Lexington, Kentucky
TV: SEC Network
Line: Tennessee by 8.5
Series Record: Tennessee leads 77-24-9
Setting the table
Despite the loss to Alabama last Saturday, the Vols are clearly playing their best football of the season. They went 1-1 against Georgia and Alabama and managed to collectively outscore those opponents by two points. Kentucky has struggled to get over the hump this season. They lost to Auburn and Florida at home by a combined eight points but they do have a home win over then-No. 25 Missouri on their resume. The Wildcats are coming off a disappointing 42-16 road loss to Mississippi State in which their defense got absolutely shredded. That said, Kentucky is more equipped to compete with Tennessee this year than last, especially at home on Halloween night.
Who has the edge
When Tennessee throws…
Through seven games, Ethan Wolf (16 catches, 218 yards) is Tennessee’s leading receiver. The Volunteers don’t have a receiver ranked in the top-35 in the conference in receiving yards. That speaks to the Vols spreading the football around and it speaks to their struggles to find any consistent targets – even Wolf has disappeared for stretches of the season. Tennessee ranks 10th in the conference in passing offense while Kentucky stands at 12th in passing defense. The Vols got their passing attack rolling three weeks ago against Georgia and carried some of that momentum to Alabama for stretches of the game. Don’t look for the Vols to shred the Wildcats, but some well timed throws should be able to produce big gains. Edge: Tennessee
When Tennessee runs…
Kentucky struggles to defend mobile quarterbacks and everyone has struggled to contain Tennessee’s rushing attack this year. The Vols rank 3rd in the conference in rushing, Jalen Hurd ranks 6th and Joshua Dobbs stands at 13th. Their ability to beat opponents to the boundary, up the seam and right up the gut has been encouraging. They should find plenty of running room against a porous Wildcat defense ranked 11th in the conference. Edge: Tennessee
When Kentucky throws…
Patrick Towles is one of the most talented QBs in the nation but has struggled with inconsistency at times this season. He ranks 4th in the SEC in passing yards per game but has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns. Towles hasn’t been helped by his offensive line or receivers, but he can’t afford to turn the ball over against Tennessee. He should be able to stretch the field against a Vol passing defense that has a nasty habit of making QBs like Greyson Lambert look elite. The Vols, however, have been better with Justin Martin emerging at corner and Brian Randolph regaining the form that made him one of the best safeties in the league during his career. In all, look for Towles to hit UT for a few big gains and for the Vols to intercept at least one of his passes. Edge: Even
When Kentucky runs…
On paper this is a pretty even matchup. Statistically the Vols haven’t been great against the run this year, but they’ve played some of the best backs in the nation and have been able to effectively bottle them up for long stretches of time. Kentucky ranks 12th in the conference in rushing while the Vols rank 10th against the run. Boom Williams and JoJo Kemp are two quality backs and Williams is a real home run threat. The Vols will have to take solid angles and not miss tackles in open space to avoid giving up big plays. After struggling in that area early in the year, they showed improvement the last two games. Tennessee’s physicality and talent edge up front should prove to be a difference maker. Edge: Tennessee
On special teams…
Despite Aaron Medley’s repeated struggles, the Vols have an edge here. Evan Berry is the best return man in the nation, Trevor Daniel is one of football’s best punters and their isn’t a better tandem at punt returner than Cam Sutton and Alvin Kamara. Kentucky’s Sihiem King has been effective returning kicks this season and the Vols shouldn’t sleep on his ability to break one for a big gain. Kentucky’s Austin MacGinnis is 11/13 on field goals this year and does give the Wildcats an edge in that area – the rest go to the Vols. Edge: Tennessee
What Kentucky is thinking
We’re close to getting “over the hump” and a win over the Vols would get is there. We lost narrowly at home to Auburn and Florida, two teams with more overall talent than the Vols. We were outmatched in Neyland last year but we can go toe-to-toe with them this season. If we play our game and take care of the football, this is an imminently winnable football game.
What Tennessee is thinking
We’re not losing to Kentucky. Though we’re just 3-4 on the year, we’ve beaten a decent Georgia team and have taken Florida and Alabama to the wire. We’re better than our record and we’re going to play like it and close the year 5-0. All that starts with a victory over the Wildcats. A steady diet of Dobbs and Hurd on the ground combined with some well timed passes should get the job done offensively. Our defense is coming off its best performance of the year and should be able to build on that against Kentucky.
What RTI is thinking
Tennessee is a better football team than last year. Kentucky is also a better football team than last year. With a Halloween night game in Lexington sure to be rowdy, this one should be close. Tennessee’s last four trips to Lexington have been decided by an average of 4.5 points and two games have gone to overtime. That said, barring catastrophe, the Vols have the tools to come out on top.