Raise your hand if in the preseason you had this Tennessee-Kentucky matchup being big for both teams in the SEC East race (keeps hand down). I certainly thought this one could be a need-to-take-care-of-business game for the Vols on their way to Atlanta, but I didn’t see the East, as mediocre as it looked overall, still being in play for as many as six teams with three weeks to go.
That’s the beauty of college football, however.
After both teams have seen plenty of ups and downs this season, both remain alive in the East, and both really need a victory this weekend to possibly remain that way.
So that sets up a more intriguing matchup than we thought a few months ago. Kentucky is an interesting team that has redefined its identity in recent weeks. The Wildcats have gone from spreading it out and throwing it around, to getting back to the basics and running the ball with Benny Snell and Boom Williams. They’ve become one of the top running back duos in the SEC.
The Vols need a better rushing defense performance, and that will be a challenge with their lack of depth on the interior of the defensive line. Players such as Kendal Vickers, Kyle Phillips and Quay Picou will need to play well to keep Kentucky from running too wild on UT. If Tennessee makes Kentucky one-dimensional, the Vols can win this one with some room to spare.
Offensively, Joshua Dobbs, who has played some of his best football against the Wildcats, needs another big game. Regardless of Alvin Kamara’s status, Kentucky will look to stop the run first. Big plays will be there for the taking in the pass game. Dobbs can’t have a repeat of the South Carolina performance.
History is strongly on UT’s side, and while I’m impressed with the resurgence of Kentucky in recent weeks, I still think the Vols are the considerably better team overall. If UT comes out flat again, there are major issues that need to be addressed. But I’m going to say that the South Carolina performance was a little bit of an anomaly, and after working out some issues in the past couple weeks, the Vols should play better down the stretch. I don’t have supreme confidence in them to run the table, but I think they get this one on Saturday by a little bit less than what Vegas is saying.
Pick: 31-21 Tennessee
MVP: QB Joshua Dobbs
Dobbs has been at his best against Kentucky – compiling over 700 passing yards, seven passing touchdowns and an additional 151 yards and four rushing touchdowns against the Wildcats in the last three matchups. If he stays on pace with those numbers, he, and the Vols, should have a good day against Kentucky.
Kentucky has one win against the Vols in the last 31 years. And that win came against a Derek Dooley-led team that had given up in the last week of the season and was playing for nothing. And the Wildcats had a wide receiver playing quarterback and won the ugliest 10-7 game you’ll ever see.
That’s Kentucky’s lone win over Tennessee in the last three decades. They’re not getting a second one this weekend either.
This game has far more SEC East implications than probably anyone expected to start the season. Kentucky is also a better overall team than most expected at this point in the season. But if there’s one thing the Wildcats do, it’s lose to Tennessee. And if they want to change that this Saturday, they’ll need to do several things.
First of all, Kentucky will need to win the turnover battle. That’s something they’ve not done all season, ranking 122nd in the country in turnover margin (-10). Secondly, they’ll need to stop the Vols’ rushing attack, another thing the Wildcats have struggled to do with opposing offenses all year. Only Missouri and Ole Miss in the SEC have given up more rushing yards per game this season.
Thirdly, Kentucky will have to be efficient on defense and stop the Vols on third down. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, they have the worst third down defense in the SEC, allowing teams to convert on 44.7 percent of their third down attempts.
The Vols are still banged up in areas, especially at defensive tackle. But running back Alvin Kamara is expected back, and linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. is another week healthier after making his return a couple weeks ago. Tennessee has more than enough play-makers on both sides of the ball to hold off Kentucky and win their 31st game in 32 years against the Wildcats.
Pick: 44-31 Tennessee
MVP: QB Joshua Dobbs
This is an easy pick for MVP in this game. Dobbs is usually the MVP of the Vols when they win, but he’s been a Kentucky killer in his career. In three career games against the Wildcats, Dobbs has completed 64.5 percent of his passes for 729 yards, seven touchdowns, and just two interceptions. Dobbs has thrown for more yards against Kentucky than he has any other team in his career, and he’s also run for 151 yards and four scores on 24 attempts. He should be able to have another stellar day against the Wildcats this Saturday.