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Preview: Tennessee vs. Kentucky

Photo By Craig Bisacre/Tennessee Athletics
Photo By Craig Bisacre/Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee (6-3, 2-3 SEC) vs. Kentucky (5-4, 4-3 SEC) 

Saturday, noon ET

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

TV: SEC Network 

Series Record: Tennessee leads 78-24-9

 Setting the table

The path to Atlanta, thanks to some help from Arkansas last week, is now pretty simple for Tennessee. The Vols need to win out against Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt, in addition to needing one loss from Florida against South Carolina or LSU.

As Butch Jones put it, UT has three one-week seasons remaining. One loss wouldn’t instantly eliminate UT from contention, but the odds would be highly stacked against the Vols at that point.

Tennessee needs to take care of business. History has been extremely kind to the Vols in this series against Kentucky, but the Wildcats have been one of the surprise teams in the conference over the past few weeks after a horrific start to the season. The Vols are approximately two-touchdown favorites in this one, but seemingly anything happen to UT this year.

 Who has the edge

When Tennessee throws…

Josh Dobbs got back on track a bit against Tennessee Tech last week after a horrendous performance in South Carolina the previous week. But while the Wildcats aren’t one of the top SEC pass defenses, they also pose much more of a challenge than Tech in that area. Dobbs will look to continue his impressive numbers against the Wildcats – a team he’s made three career starts against. The senior quarterback has completed 40-of-76 passes (60.5%) for 728 yards, seven TDs and just two interceptions against Kentucky. The Wildcats will likely sell-out to stop the run like many teams have against UT this year, giving Dobbs the chance to find players such as Josh Malone and Jauan Jennings. If he can capitalize, it could be a big day through the air. Edge: Tennessee 

When Tennessee runs…

Dobbs has also had some big games on the ground against Kentucky with 24 carries for 151 yards and four TDs in his last three matchups against UK. He should have plenty of help as well. John Kelly has been impressive in limited action since stepping into a bigger role in recent weeks. He may not be Jalen Hurd in every respect, but he gives the Vols a bit more burst. Alvin Kamara’s status is up in the air, but if he goes, that’ll be an even bigger boost against a rush defense that gives up almost 200 yards per game on the ground. Edge: Tennessee 

When Kentucky throws…

When quarterback Drew Barker was lost for the season, the chance for a consistently potent passing attack went away as well. Stephen Johnson has averaged just 146 passing yards per game in his SEC starts this year with seven touchdowns and four interceptions. The Vols have struggled to locate deep balls at times this year, and Kentucky does have a couple players in Garrett Johnson (339 yards) and Jeff Badet (530 yards) that can stretch the field a bit. But the pass game isn’t where Kentucky thrives right now, and even with an inconsistent secondary, the Vols shouldn’t give up too much through the air. The return of Cam Sutton, which might still be a week out from returning, would be huge for the Vols in this category. Edge: Slightly to Tennessee 

When Kentucky runs…

The Wildcats have found their identity on the ground over the past four weeks, piling up 270 yards per game rushing in a four-game conference span. They keep it simple. UK likes to get in the wildcat package with Benny Snell and Boom Williams – two of the most underrated backs in the conference – and pound the ball. And with two of the top seven most productive backs in the SEC facing a Tennessee run defense that has severe depth questions at defensive tackle, the Wildcats should put up strong numbers on the ground. Edge: Kentucky

On special teams…

With the status of Kamara and Sutton up in the air, UT might be limited in its return options with Evan Berry now on the shelf. That takes a lot of steam out of UT’s special teams machine and could level the playing field in this area. Austin MacGinnis has been solid at kicker for UK this year, but Trevor Daniel gives Tennessee the punting edge. Edge: Even

 Best-case scenario for UT 

Tennessee has owned this series for the past few decades, and another convincing victory would be ideal for Tennessee. Any kind of win, however, would do the job as the Vols begin to focus in on the goal of getting to Atlanta. A win, combined with a South Carolina victory over Florida, would be the best-case scenario for the entire day.

 Worst-case scenario for UT

A loss puts a significant dent in UT’s hopes to win the East and could have the Vols eliminated by the end of the day, pending other results. Butch Jones will really feel the heat if the Vols come out flat again like they did in their last SEC contest.

 How we think it’ll play out

This season proves that virtually anything can happen to the Vols, but it’s tough envisioning them losing this game on Saturday. They’re the better team, and with the East still within their grasp, it would be surprising if they pulled another South Carolina-like performance. It might not be the blowout that we saw last year, but Tennessee should win while possibly covering the spread as well.

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