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Prediction Panel: Tennessee vs. No. 11 Kentucky

Photo by Anne Newman/RTI

The RTI team makes their picks for the Vols’ match-up with the Kentucky Wildcats this upcoming Saturday. Managing editor Nathanael Rutherford, staff writer Ben McKee, and contributor Charley Collier all share their predictions for this Saturday’s contest.

Nathanael’s Pick

At the beginning of this week, I was leaning more towards picking the Vols to upset Kentucky this Saturday. By mid-week, I was convinced there was no way Tennessee would be able to beat the Wildcats.

Now that it’s time to pick this game, I have no idea where to go with this prediction.

Kentucky is a good team. But they’re not a top-15 team, in my opinion. They’re too one dimensional for that, and they’ve benefited from having a somewhat easier schedule than most SEC teams typically get. They played Florida before they figured some things out, got Mississippi State when they were playing their worst football, and caught Missouri on one of Derek Dooley’s worst days as a play-caller.

The Wildcats deserve credit for getting all those wins, absolutely. But over the last month, they’ve looked like a very different team than they did to start this season.

Kentucky’s defense kept them in it with Texas A&M, but ultimately the Aggies prevailed in that one. The Wildcats slogged their way to a 14-7 win over Vanderbilt, and their 15-14 win over Missouri took a lot of luck and a lot of bad decisions by the Tigers to pull out that win. Then they got manhandled by Georgia last weekend and lost 34-17.

Tennessee isn’t a great team, and they’re going to struggle to stop Kentucky’s rushing attack. But the Wildcats haven’t been the same on the ground over the last month, and teams have started to key in on what the Wildcats’ offense is doing. Terry Wilson can make some throws, but he’s certainly not a great passer. If the Vols can do enough to limit the Wildcats’ effectiveness on the ground, they stand a real chance.

But Tennessee’s offensive line really concerns me, especially with UK’s Josh Allen at linebacker. He leads the SEC in sacks and tackles for loss, and he’s going to potentially wreak a lot of havoc on Saturday.

If the Vols implement a similar offensive game plan against Kentucky like they did against South Carolina, they have a real shot at moving the ball against a stingy Wildcat defense. But the question is, will the Vols run that type of offense? And can the offense be effective regardless of what they decide to do?

Three times this year, my gut has been spot-on with Tennessee’s football team. My gut wanted me to pick the Vols to upset Auburn, but I didn’t listen. My gut told me UT wouldn’t keep it anywhere close against Alabama despite them getting that big win against the Tigers, and I almost predicted the score exactly right for that game. And my gut told me not to pick the Vols to beat the Gamecocks, and I listened.

I’m going to listen to my gut for this game. It could be wrong, but I’ve gotta listen to it this time.

Pick: Tennessee, 18-17

MVP: Tennessee QB Jarrett Guarantano

Much like the South Carolina game, I expect Guarantano to not be asked to do a whole lot, but to have a lot of success doing what he’s told. He completed a high percentage of his passes in that game and didn’t throw an interception. If the Vols run a similar offense to what they did against the Gamecocks, I expect him to put out another efficient stat line and be the MVP of the offense behind a patchwork offensive line.

Ben’s Pick

In order to win in the SEC, you have to be able to run the football and stop the run. In other words, teams must win in the trenches to win in this conference.

Tennessee doesn’t do that well, and Kentucky does it very well. That’s essentially what it boils down to for me. Kentucky runs the football extremely well behind a physical O-line, and the Vols have struggled to stop the run against good teams this season.

Offensively for the Vols, the offensive line struggled to get a push against the mighty Charlotte 49ers last week. Against a Kentucky defense that ranks eighth nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 15.3 points per game, things aren’t going to get any better.

Points are going to be hard to come by for Tennessee, and as a result, Kentucky fans are going to win in Neyland Stadium for the first time since 1984.

Pick: Kentucky, 27-13

MVP: Kentucky LB Jordan Allen

Kentucky’s Jordan Allen has been one of the best pass-rushers in the entire country this season, and he has played himself into being a likely top-15 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Allen is 10th in the country and leads the SEC with 14.5 tackles for loss, while his 10 quarterback hurries rank third nationally. According to Kentucky’s game notes, nine of Allen’s 10 sacks on the season have come in the second half of games, including six in the fourth quarter and three in the third. He has also forced five fumbles, which is the second-most in the nation.

Against Tennessee’s floundering offensive line, I expect Allen to have a field day. Especially since the Vols will be without Trey Smith at tackle.

Charley’s Pick 

For me, it will always be the Battle for the Beer Barrel. I wasn’t even alive the last time the two schools played for the barrel, but I love this rivalry and always will.

This has been a series dominated by the Vols, as they lead the series with a  79-25-9 record, and Tennessee won 26 straight at one point. However, the dynamic has changed in recent years.

Kentucky won last year, and now this year they come in as a top 15 team and road favorites. They will be looking to win back-to-back games in the series for the first time since the 1970’s.

After tomorrow, they’re going to have to wait a little longer to break that streak.

Kentucky’s defense will pose a great challenge to an over-matched Vols offense. The good news is, if Tennessee can score 20 points, they should win the game. However, that will be no easy task.

Kentucky dominates opponents at the line of scrimmage, and Tennessee has a tendency to get dominated there. That’s not a good combo. Tyson Helton will have to call a great game, and the Vols have to take advantage of every opportunity they are given. I think the Vols are going to be able to make just enough big plays offensively in this one to give themselves a fighting chance, but I don’t see the offense having sustained success from drive to drive. They won’t be able to run the ball, so they’ll have to make plays through the air. Marquez Callaway, Jauan Jennings, and Josh Palmer will have to create plays, and Helton will need to use a lot of deception and misdirection.

Defensively, the Vols know exactly what they’re going to get. Kentucky is going to run the ball, and if that doesn’t work, they’re still going to run the ball. I think the Vols’ defensive coaching staff is good enough to devise a game plan to stop them. They need to load the box and dare Terry Wilson to throw the ball.

The only team more one dimensional than Kentucky is Army.

A lot of times the defense has struggled, it’s been because of missed assignments and confusion among inexperienced players. When you know what to expect, it simplifies things, and I think the Tennessee defense is going to have their best game of the year to date.

Ultimately, I think this game comes down to coaching. In my opinion, Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops is a bad coach. He has a very talented team, and his coaching has hindered them at times. He’s going to get out-coached on Saturday, and the Vols are going to win a close, low-scoring game.

Pick: Tennessee, 14-10

MVP:  Tennessee WR Jauan Jennings

Both touchdowns on Saturday are going to come on big passing plays to Jennings. Kentucky is going to put their best corner, Derrick Baity Jr., on Marquez Callaway. Jennings will have the opportunity to make some big plays with the focus potentially elsewhere. There isn’t a player on the Wildcats’ defense that can cover him one-on-one, and he is going to get the opportunity to come down with some big catches.

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