Tennessee heads to Kentucky Saturday looking for a marquee win against the 18th-ranked Wildcats.
Each week, the RTI team will provide game predictions for Tennessee’s weekly opponent.
We move on to Kentucky
Ric Butler: I know it may sound cliche, but I really do believe that the timing of this game could set up well for a Tennessee win. The Vols’ defense has played better than expected this season, and Tim Banks has done a stand-up job scheming against defenses, stumping a few at different points along the way. With two full weeks to prepare for Kentucky’s offense, with fresh legs all around, I think that Tennessee really could have some tricks up their sleeve. The Vols will need to do a good job covering two guys in particular: The wide receiver, Robinson, and the running back, Rodriguez. Those are the two huge playmakers on Kentucky’s offense and will be able to give the Vols trouble. If Tennessee can get a consistent pass rush on quarterback Will Levis, I think Tennessee could really get aggressive in other places early in the game. Then we get to the offensive side of the ball. Again, Heupel and Alex Golesh have had two weeks to prepare for Kentucky’s defense. A defense that has given up 30+ points in their two back-to-back losses. Therefore, I think if Tennessee is going to win, they will need to get above the 30-mark to do so. Ultimately, it will be strength on strength, with Tennessee’s offense going up against Kentucky’s defense. In the last four games, Tennessee has only had Tiyon Evans and Jabari Small play in a single game together, Alabama, in which they each only had seven carries. With fresh legs, Tennessee will have its top two running backs available to Hendon Hooker, and I do believe that will make a difference. Tennessee will bolster the trenches as well, as it looks like preseason First Team All-SEC lineman Cade Mays will be back in the lineup against the Wildcats. Additionally, defensive lineman Elijah Simmons could also make his return to the field. Lastly, it comes down to coaching. This will either be a chance for Josh Heupel to secure a massive victory over a ranked rival, or Stoops will add another win under his belt in back-to-back years. Just looking at the statistics, looking at the records, I do think this is where Tennessee finds that first ranked win of the Heupel era. In some ways, I will be more surprised if Tennessee does lose. Not to discredit Kentucky, because ultimately, that would be discrediting a Tennessee win if it were to happen. But I have been impressed with this coaching staff since the first game, even through speed bumps or potholes along the way. But I have believed that Heupel will find a signature win in his first season. If its not this game, it could still be a bowl win, depending on the marquee level of the opponent. But regardless, this is a big opportunity, and I do think Tennessee finds a way to win. The biggest concern I have for Tennessee, though, is their endurance through the entire game in the cold. At times, Tennessee has faded during the second half of games. Under the lights, in the freezing cold, Tennessee needs to bring a blistering effort through the final whistle if they want to bring home a win.
Prediction: Tennessee 35, Kentucky 27
Ryan Schumpert: The last realistic chance for Josh Heupel to get a top 25 win in his first season at Tennessee comes Saturday night when the Vols head to Lexington to face No. 18 Kentucky. The Vols are 0-2 this season in games decided by one possession, losing to Pitt and Ole Miss at Neyland Stadium. Give Heupel and his staff credit for beating Missouri and South Carolina, but the Vols turned out to be a lot better than those teams. If Heupel wants universal support and major momentum going into the offseason, the Vols need to win Saturday night in Lexington. If Tennessee does that, they’ll need wins over South Alabama and Vanderbilt to go 7-5 this season. That tie Tennessee’s third best regular season over the last 12 years and would be the best inaugural season for a Vols’ head coach since Lane Kiffin’s Vols went 7-5 in 2009. So, yeah, this is a big game for both Heupel and the trajectory of Tennessee’s program. Mark Stoops continues to elevate Kentucky’s program and has the Wildcats’ beating out Tennessee and others for sought after high school recruits in the Volunteer State. Saturday gives Heupel a chance to get a marquee win on the field over Kentucky. Something he hasn’t done yet on the recruiting trail. The Wildcats are 6-2 but have lost back-to-back games including a three-score loss at Mississippi State last week. Kentucky looks vulnerable as they return home and Tennessee is coming off a much needed bye week, allowing Hendon Hooker, Tiyon Evans, Warren Burrell, Cade Mays and Elijah Simmons to get healthier. Tennessee’s defense matches up well against Kentucky’s offense that relies on the ground game. The big question to me is how effectively can Tennessee run the ball against a strong Kentucky front seven. When Tennessee’s offense has consistent success on the ground it’s been nearly elite. After losing two close games at home, I think Tennessee gets it done in a close game on the road. Josh Heupel improves to 1-0 against Kentucky and Mark Stoops falls to 2-7 against Tennessee.
Prediction: Tennessee 27, Kentucky 20