No. 18 Tennessee and Kentucky square off in Neyland Stadium on Saturday as the Vols look to bounce back from an embarrassing loss in Athens last weekend. Ahead of Saturday’s rivalry game, Rocky Top Insider takes a look at which team has what advantage over the other.
Here’s a look at the matchups within the matchup between the Vols and Wildcats:
Tennessee’s passing attack vs. Kentucky’s pass defense
Kentucky led the SEC and ranked second nationally in passing yards allowed last season at 167.8 yards per game. The Cats allowed just nine touchdown passes all last season, tied with Clemson and Ohio State for the fewest in the nation.
That secondary returns three starters in cornerback Cedrick Dort Jr., senior free safety Yusuf Corker and senior cornerback Brandin Echols. The unit also adds LSU transfer Kelvin Joseph who has started the first three games after sitting out last season due to transfer rules. He notched his first career interception in the win over Mississippi State.
A good Kentucky secondary takes on a Tennessee wide receiver group that is still trying to figure out the pecking order behind Josh Palmer. Joseph vs. Palmer will be the matchup to watch when Tennessee drops back to pass. Right now, the Cats are deeper in the secondary than Tennessee is in the passing game.
Kentucky’s passing attack vs. Tennessee’s pass defense
Kentucky is simply not a good passing team, whereas Tennessee’s secondary is very talented, though they have struggled to this point in the season for various reasons. Terry Wilson is athletic and makes plays with his legs, but he’s not a quarterback that scares defenses with his arm. With Wilson at the helm this season, Kentucky ranks 13th in the SEC in passing.
Tennessee will have to be more disciplined in the secondary moving forward. There have been far too many mental breakdowns to this point in the season. This week should be a good stepping stone for the Vols to get back on track in the secondary.
Tennessee’s offensive line vs. Kentucky’s defensive front
This is going to be a great matchup to watch during Saturday’s game. The Vols struggled against Georgia’s defensive front last week, but a lot of the struggles simply had to do with the Bulldogs’ elite talent and depth. Kentucky’s front seven is nothing to sleep on, but Tennessee’s offensive line should get back on track this week.
The interior of Tennessee’s o-line vs. the interior of Kentucky’s d-line will determine this matchup. Trey Smith, Brandon Kennedy and Cade Mays must do a good job of containing Kentucky tackle Quinton Bohanna. On the edge, Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright will have their hands full with Kentucky edge rushers Jamar “Boogie” Watson and Josh Paschal.
Tennessee’s rushing attack vs. Kentucky’s rush defense
Kentucky’s rush defense ranks third in the SEC through three games, but playing Mississippi State has helped that statistic for Kentucky. Mike Leach’s air raid offense only ran the ball nine times last week in Lexington. Still, Kentucky’s rush defense has been stout this season.
Tennessee will have to do a much better job of running the football this weekend against Kentucky, which will be a tall task, but Eric Gray and Ty Chandler should have an easier time doing so with the offensive line being more productive. This matchup with be another fun one to watch, and another matchup that will determine the outcome of the game.
Kentucky’s rushing attack vs. Tennessee’s rush defense
Kentucky may not be good at throwing the football, but the Cats are one of the best teams in the country at running the football. They’re the best in the SEC through three games this season, having rushed for 212.33 yards per game. No other team in the conference is averaging more than 200 yards.
On the flip side, the Vols have struggled at times against the run. Tennessee’s rush defense was solid at times against Georgia and are headed in the right direction, but Saturday will be a really tough task for the Vols.
Tennessee’s special teams vs. Kentucky’s special teams
Kentucky has the best specialist in this game in 2019 Ray Guy Award winner Max Duffy, but Tennessee’s special teams is better from top-to-bottom. Duffy led the country in punting last season and as good as he is, the Wildcats are a little shaky at kicker. Senior Matt Ruffolo won the starting placekicking job during preseason practice. Ruffolo is 1-for-2 on field goal attempts this season and 9-of-10 on PATs.
The Vols are sure-handed at both kicker and punter. Paxton Brooks is coming off a strong performance against Georgia that led to him winning the Ray Guy Punter of the Week award, and though Brent Cimaglia has missed two field goals in three games this season, Cimaglia is still one of the best kicker’s in the country.
Tennessee also has more potential for explosive plays in the return game with Velus Jones Jr. at kick returner and Eric Gray at punt returner.