Mark Stoops and Kentucky earned their second win over Tennessee in the ninth-year head coach’s tenure last fall at Neyland Stadium.
The Wildcats have built off that win, turning in a solid 2020 season before opening the 2021 season with a 6-0 record. Tennessee is looking for revenge from last season’s humiliating loss this weekend in Lexington when they face No. 18 Kentucky.
Stoops — who has rejuvenated the Kentucky program — sees a much different Tennessee team on the field this season than he did last fall.
“Very impressed with Tennessee,” Stoops said. “They’re a much improved team from over a year ago. Josh has done a very good job. They’re playing at a very high tempo offensively. They have some difference makers at receiver and obviously the stress they put on you with tempo and spacing and things of that nature. They’re playing extremely hard defensively. Overall much improved team so we’ll have to play a lot better than we did this last Saturday.”
The biggest difference Stoops sees between this Tennessee team and the one Kentucky beat 34-7 last season at Neyland Stadium is the Vols’ offense.
Tennessee’s offense — which ranked 12th in the SEC in scoring — turned it over four times in the first half of last season’s game including Jarrett Guarantano pick sixes on back-to-back drives.
“They’re just more effective,” Stoops said. “They’re playing at a higher level. Like I talked about going into last week’s game with Mississippi State — they’re making the routine look routine. For them, with Josh, with how fast they go and the pressure they put on you and then the executing, hitting shots down the field, they’re doing that at a high level. Their quarterback is playing much better. When they settled in on Hooker, who we played a few years in the Belk Bowl. He’s really playing at a high level. You can see him being really confident. He runs the ball effectively when he needs to but he’s getting the ball down the field, has a lot of arm strength and is playing very well.”
Hendon Hooker’s presence in Tennessee’s offense has bolstered the Vols’ offensive firepower. The Virginia Tech transfer quarterback has 21 total touchdowns and four turnovers this season. Tennessee’s offense now ranks fourth in the SEC in points per game.
Hooker was average in Virginia Tech’s 37-30 loss to Kentucky in the 2019 Belk Bowl, completing 12-of-22 passes for 110 yards and two touchdowns while adding 50 rushing yards on 12 carries.
Kentucky jumped out to a 6-0 record this season before losing its last two games at Georgia and at Mississippi State. There’s no shame in losing to the nation’s No. 1 team but Mississippi State dominated the Wildcats’ 31-17 last week.
This week, Stoops discussed the similarities and differences in Mississippi State and Tennessee’s spread offenses.
“It is different the way they will attack you but similar in that they put pressure on you in the run game,” Stoops compared Tennessee’s offense to Mississippi State. “Tennessee puts pressure on you still. They have extremely wide splits but they’re going to run the ball and be more committed to running the ball and run it more effectively. Then with their splits they’ll take their shots in the RPO game. You have to be able to win some contested matchups.”
While this is Heupel’s first year as Tennessee’s head coach, it’s not the first time Stoops and Kentucky have faced the former Heisman Trophy runner up’s offense.
Kentucky beat Heupel twice when the Vols’ head coach was Missouri’s offensive coordinator in 2016 and 2017. Stoops and Heupel also coached together at Arizona in 2005.
“It is (similar),” Stoops said of Tennessee’s offense compared to Missouri’s when Heupel was the OC. “Just as far as, pressure on you in the run game, wide splits, extremely high tempo and taking their shots down the field. There’s some different things as well, but overall schematically it’s very similar in different ways.”
On the defensive side, Stoops sees what almost all coaches have seen in Tennessee’s defense all season. A group that’s improved and playing extremely hard.
“Scheme wise definitely somewhat different,” Stoops said of UT’s defense this season versus last season. “They’re really playing hard. They have some really good players. Some disruptive guys and they’re playing aggressive. They’re doing a good job and improving in a lot of ways.
Tennessee and Kentucky kick off at Kroger Field at 7 p.m. ET Saturday night. ESPN2 will broadcast the game.