Head Coach: Mark Stoops, 5th year (24-32 overall)
Location: Lexington, KY
Leading Passer: Stephen Johnson — 112-of-183, 1,355 yards, 9 TD, 4 INT
Leading Rusher: Benny Snell Jr. — 133 carries, 541 yards, 6 TD
Leading Receiver: Garrett Johnson — 32 catches, 369 yards, 2 TD
Let’s not mince words: Kentucky isn’t a great team. They aren’t bad either, but they might be one of the more average teams the Vols face this season.
The Wildcats are in the bottom half of the SEC in total offense, total defense, scoring offense, and scoring defense. Kentucky actually has the worst passing defense in the conference in terms of yards allowed per game (270.1), and despite their rushing defense ranking third in the SEC in yards allowed a game, they’ve been torched on the ground the last two games.
Mississippi State ran for 282 yards and four touchdowns in a 45-7 win last weekend, and Missouri totaled 213 yards and a score on just 33 attempts in a 40-34 loss. The 495 yards the Bulldogs and Tigers racked up against the Wildcats were more than Kentucky had allowed in the previous five games combined.
Kentucky has some solid play-makers on offense. Stephen Johnson is a legitimate dual-threat quarterback with 1,355 passing yards and 198 rushing yards on 53 carries. Benny Snell Jr. has three 100-yard rushing games this season, and Garrett Johnson has been a pass catching machine so far this year.
But the depth behind Kentucky’s starters isn’t great. And if the Vols can wear down the Wildcats, they have a very good chance of leaving Lexington with a win.
Tennessee’s biggest problem over the last month has been scoring. The Vols have gone 14 quarters without scoring an offensive touchdown, and their only touchdown in that span has come on defense. Since the Vols scored a touchdown in the second quarter against UMass, they’ve managed to kick just four field goals on offense in the three and a half games after.
Luckily for the Vols, however, Kentucky has been known to give up a good amount of points this year.
Kentucky has allowed teams to score 23 touchdowns on them this season, and that’s tied for the 6th-most in the SEC. They’ve allowed 10 touchdowns over their last two games and are giving up 30 points per game in SEC play.
If Tennessee is going to have an offensive breakout sometime soon, this just might be the game in which they do it.
The bad news for the Vols is that they’ll be without their best offensive player on Saturday. Running back John Kelly has been suspended for the game, and that means Tennessee will be relying on several freshmen and a sophomore to carry the load at running back.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Jarrett Guarantano will also be making only his third career start, and it’s his second consecutive week making a start on the road. Guarantano has yet to win as a starter, and he’s not been able to create a lot of big plays through the air or on the ground aside from Tennessee’s final drive against South Carolina.
The Wildcats have given up 29 plays of 20 or more yards to opponents this season, however. That’s the 7th-most in the SEC, and it’s just one more than what the Vols have allowed. Tennessee should be able to find some big plays on Saturday if the offensive line can block effectively and if the receivers play up to par.
This is a very winnable game for Tennessee. Kentucky doesn’t do any one thing extremely well, but they also aren’t a terrible team at the same time. The Vols are just as likely to lose this game as they are to win it, but the odds were swayed even more in Kentucky’s favor when John Kelly’s suspension was announced.
Tennessee desperately needs a win, and they’ve beaten Kentucky every season except one over the last 32 contests. History says they’ll get the win they need, but history isn’t always an accurate barometer for the present.