The RTI team makes their picks for the Vols’ match-up with the Kentucky Wildcats this upcoming Saturday. Managing editor Nathanael Rutherford and staff writer Ben McKee share their predictions for the Vols’ crucial SEC contest this weekend.
History tells me Tennessee should beat Kentucky. History tells me the Vols should pretty well handle the Wildcats. But history has been proven wrong plenty of times with Tennessee football over the last few years.
The last time the Vols made the trip up to Lexington, Tennessee lost in a closely-contested battle that ended with a Hail Mary heave that was caught two yards short of the end zone.
That year, Tennessee didn’t win a single SEC game.
Last season, Kentucky came into Knoxville as the No. 12 team in the country and fresh off a hard-fought loss to Georgia, a game that was a winner-take-the-SEC-East contest. The Vols, meanwhile, needed a win to keep their bowl hopes alive.
Not only did Tennessee win, but they won handily, controlling Kentucky from start to finish in a 24-7 upset
Historically, the Vols have owned Kentucky. Tennessee has beaten the Wildcats 80 times, more than they’ve beaten any other team they’ve ever played in school history. The Wildcats are an abysmal 25-80-9 all-time against Tennessee.
This year, both teams seem pretty evenly matched on paper, but there are several wrinkles to consider.
Kentucky doesn’t have a conventional quarterback situation right now. The Wildcats are starting wide receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. at quarterback, and he’s been dynamic as the primary option on offense. Though he hasn’t thrown the ball a ton, Bowden has been electrifying on the ground and totaled almost 600 yards rushing in his three starts so far. Two of those three starts have been victories for Kentucky, with the explosive emergency quarterback leading the Wildcats to wins over Arkansas and Missouri. Sandwiched in between those wins was a 21-0 loss to Georgia.
Tennessee, however, has generally had pretty good luck facing “one-dimensional” offenses under Jeremy Pruitt. If a team is very run-heavy, features a running quarterback, and doesn’t have a great passing threat, the Vols have had a lot of success in stopping those teams and getting wins in the Pruitt era. Look at Kentucky last year, or Mississippi State this season.
There’s also UT’s quarterback situation. Is Brian Maurer healthy enough to start? If not, can Jarrett Guarantano play well enough to win on the road in what will be a pretty energetic environment? If not, can JT Shrout step up in the moment? Will Jauan Jennings handle a lot more quarterback duties than anticipated?
Throw in the fact that Tennessee’s offensive line is banged up, the Vols will be playing their sixth-straight game, and Kentucky is coming off a bye week, and there are several compelling reasons to pick Kentucky for this game.
But this is Tennessee-Kentucky. Surely the Vols can pull out another win against the Wildcats, right? Kentucky has only won two of the last eight meetings between the two schools, and those are their only two wins against Tennessee over the last 34 years.
I’m banking on the Vols’ improved play continuing, though the grind of playing their sixth-straight game and the Wildcats having a week to rest really concerns me. But Tennessee has shown enough over the last month for me to have renewed optimism in them, even though I think Kentucky has a very, very good shot at winning this game.
But hey, gotta believe in the power of the orange pants, right?
Pick: 23-19, Tennessee
MVP: Henry To’o To’o, Tennessee LB
I think the MVP for the Vols, should they win, will be a defender, and chances are that defender will be in the front seven. Daniel Bituli is a popular pick, and he was one that immediately sprang to my mind. But I’ve been very impressed with To’o To’o all season, and he was a silent standout for the Vols last week and has been extremely good for a true freshman. I think he has a stellar game against a run-heavy Wildcat attack.
The match-up between Tennessee’s offensive line and Kentucky’s defensive line will determine Saturday’s contest between the Vols and Cats.
UT enters the third-most played rivalry in the SEC banged up along the O-line. Questions surround the availability of Darnell Wright (ankle), Jahmir Johnson (knee), and Wanya Morris (shoulder). Whether they’re available or not, Trey Smith and Brandon Kennedy will be in charge of leading the way in slowing down Kentucky’s talented defensive front that consists of Josh Paschal, Jamar Watson, Jordan Wright, Kash Daniel, and DeAndre Square.
The other match-up that will be key to the Vols winning is Tennessee’s run defense going up against Lynn Bowden Jr., A.J. Rose, and Kavosiey Smoke. Tennessee will hope Sawyer Smith starts at quarterback in order to take the football out of the hands of the dynamic Bowden on every play, but Rose and Smoke don’t get enough credit for how explosive they are as well. Plus, they’re running behind an offensive line that is a member of the midseason honor roll for the Joe Moore Award — which is awarded to the best offensive line unit in the country.
Tennessee has played well against the run of late, while Kentucky, led by Bowden, is much more efficient running the football than throwing it. Ultimately, this game will come down to which line of scrimmage plays better in order to make life easier on either quarterback situation that isn’t the best.
Pick: 24-14, Tennessee
MVP: Daniel Bituli, Tennessee LB
This game is right up the ally of Daniel Bituli. Two weeks after winning SEC Defensive Player of the Week, the senior will be called upon to lead the defensive charge against a strong Kentucky rushing attack.