Opponent Preview: No. 11 Kentucky Wildcats

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    (Photo via Mark Zerof – USA Today Sports)

    Record: 7-2 overall, 5-2 SEC
    Head Coach: Mark Stoops, 6th year (33-38 overall)
    Location: Lexington, Kentucky

    Leading Passer: Terry Wilson (RS So.) — 123-of-182, 1,214 yards, 6 TDs, 6 INTs
    Leading Rusher: Benny Snell Jr. (Jr.) — 199 carries, 1,008 yards, 10 TDs
    Leading Receiver: Lynn Bowden Jr. (So.) — 49 receptions, 509 yards, 3 TDs
    Leading Tackler: Josh Allen (Sr.) — 59 tackles, 14.5 TFL, 10 sacks, 5 FF, 2 recoveries. 4 PD

    For the first time in the modern football era, Kentucky is favored to beat Tennessee in Knoxville. And there’s good reason why the No. 11 Wildcats are the favorites heading into this Saturday’s contest.

    Kentucky hasn’t beaten Tennessee in Neyland Stadium since 1984, but this team is the Wildcats’ best shot of ending that losing streak since it began. The Wildcats are stout defensively, and they bowl over opposing defenses with a solid rushing attack. They aren’t the flashiest team, nor are they the most talented team UT has faced this season. But they’re well-coached, have great team chemistry, and posses legit NFL talent at important positions.

    Let’s look at the Wildcats’ offense first. It’s led by one of the best running backs in college football in Benny Snell. The junior running back leads the SEC in rushing yards and is tied for second in rushing touchdowns on the season. He’ll be one of the best backs the Vols have faced all year.

    But there’s some good news for the Vols on that front: Snell is a little banged up and appears to have a bruised ankle. He and Kentucky’s offensive line got off to a blistering start to this season, but the Wildcats’ rushing attack has been contained in three of the last four weeks. Snell hasn’t rushed for 100 yards in three of his last four games after eclipsing the 100-yard mark in three of the first four games of the season and finishing one yard shy of that total against South Carolina as well.

    Though Snell has been held in check a lot over the last month, a lot of that has to do with the defenses Kentucky has faced. They’ve gone up against the No. 1 rush defense in the SEC in Texas A&M, the No. 4 rush defense in the conference in Missouri, and the No. 7 SEC run defense in Georgia. The one game Snell went over 100 yards on the ground over the last month came against Vanderbilt, and they have the 13th-ranked run defense in the conference.

    Tennessee has the No. 10 run defense in the SEC, giving up 161.1 rushing yards a game to opponents.

    Kentucky isn’t a potent passing offense, but Terry Wilson has shown more resolve there over the last couple weeks and has started to progress as a passer. He’s not been asked to attempt many high-risk passes and is completing 67.6 percent of his pass attempts, but he also has six interceptions and only six touchdowns on the year. He can, however, run the ball effectively. Wilson is second on the team in rushing yards, totaling 418 yards on 100 attempts.

    Wilson may not be the best passer in the SEC, but he has a legit weapon he can give the ball to and watch him make plays. And that’s sophomore receiver Lynn Bowden.

    Bowden is Kentucky’s top target in the passing game, and it’s not even close. He has 49 receptions this season, and the player with the second-most catches on UK’s roster this season is C.J. Conrad, and he has 21 receptions. Bowden is a quick and shifty play-maker who can create space for himself and gets the ball in a multitude of ways.

    Other than those big three names on Kentucky’s offense, the Vols don’t really have anyone else to key in on. Conrad will get a few catches most likely as well, but Snell, Bowden, and Wilson are the big names to keep an eye on for UK’s offense.

    On defense, however, Kentucky has several players who can cause Tennessee a lot of issues. And the top problem-causer is linebacker Josh Allen.

    Tennessee’s offensive line hasn’t played great all season, but they’ve actually been decent in pass protection for the most part because UT has gotten the ball out quick on most plays. They’ll have to do that again on Saturday, because Allen leads the SEC in sacks.

    Allen also leads the SEC in tackles for loss, and the Vols have had plenty of issues running the ball and blocking for their talented running backs. Allen also has five forced fumbles on the season, so Jarrett Guarantano and UT’s running backs need to hold on to the ball better this weekend as well.

    As much attention as Allen gets on UK’s defense (understandably so), the Wildcats aren’t just a one-man show on defense. Kentucky has several dangerous defenders both in the secondary and in the front seven.

    Five different Wildcat players have at least one interception this year, and Darius West leads the way with three INTs this season. He’s also broken up six passes and has a fumble recovery for a touchdown. Mike Edwards is also very dangerous in Kentucky’s defensive backfield. He’s picked off a pass, has six tackles for loss, and has defended four passes.

    As a team, Kentucky is tied for sixth in the SEC in most turnovers forced, but they’re also tied for 11th for the most giveaways on the season. They’ve taken the ball away 14 times, but they’ve also turned it over 13 different times this season.

    Kentucky has been a good third down team on offense, ranking fifth in the SEC with a 41.96 percent conversion rate on third down. But they’ve been horrendous on defense at stopping teams on third down, ranking 13th in the conference by allowing teams to convert 41.6 percent of the time on third down this season. Only Vanderbilt has been worse among SEC teams.

    There’s plenty to like about this Kentucky team, but they also have their flaws. They’re more than capable of being beaten, but they have more than enough talent, coaching, and intangibles to defeat the Vols, too.