The Opponent: Tennessee meets the University of Kentucky for the 118th time on Saturday. The Vols hold the all-time edge at 82-26-9. Kentucky in its 10th season under Mark Stoops, who has really rewarded the Kentucky administration for showing patience early in his tenure. While Kentucky may always be a basketball school (sorry Coach), Stoops has made the Cats both feared and relevant in the SEC. In terms of notable alumni, this week’s choice is easy for me. Miss Elizabeth was the original WWF (WWE) starlet and a proud UK graduate. For those not familiar, Miss Elizabeth was the “manager” of Macho Man Randy Savage. The two were married for a number of years in real life. Miss Elizabeth’s career spanned the better part of two decades. She ended up married to wrestler Lex Luger later in life before tragically passing away at 42. While often portrayed as a classic damsel in distress, Miss Elizabeth was a true badass babe of pro wrestling.
Are they any Good? Yes, Kentucky is good. The Cats are 5-2 on the season. That includes a hard-fought road loss to Ole Miss, and a loss at home to South Carolina without Will Levis playing. If Levis plays that game, then Kentucky is likely 6-1 and ranked inside the top 12. The Cats have double-digit wins in two of the last four seasons. This was supposed to be the year though. The Cats expected to challenge Georgia for the East, and make it to a New Year’s Six bowl game at a minimum. Now all of their hopes rest on upsetting at least one of Tennessee or Georgia. This team is capable of that. Mark Stoops has a sturdy, solid defense. The Cats have Chris Rodriquez back from suspension, and running well. They have several very talented young receivers. Offensive line play appears to have dropped off from previous seasons, maybe one reason this offense has not looked as effective.
What does Vegas say? Depending on the book, Tennessee opened as anywhere from 12 to 14-point favorites at home. That figure looks settled around -12.5 for now. Over/Under is set at 63.5. Last season’s thriller totaled 87.
Matchup to watch on Offense: Can Kentucky take away the big plays? This Tennessee offense feasts on big plays. The Vols lead the country in scoring (50.1 ppg) despite being 121st in time of possession. Kentucky knows this all too well, after holding the ball for over 45 minutes in last year’s game. The Vols scored touchdowns of 75 yards, 72 yards , 56 yards , and 37 yards in Lexington last year. Kentucky has not forgotten that, and they have watched the film of Tennessee versus Alabama. Outside of Georgia, no defense in the SEC has been better at not giving up big plays defensively. This will be Kentucky’s biggest challenge of the season though, and Stoops knows it. The Cats have a really solid defense despite being at the bottom of the SEC rankings in both sacks and tackles for loss. Ironically Georgia is at the bottom of both with them. It may not be a total coincidence. Kentucky is not as concerned with taking chances to get off the field. They want to make an opposing offense consistently drive the ball against them.
What that may look like is only sending three to four pass rushers, and dropping the majority of your defense into coverage. It makes sense, especially when considering Hendon Hooker as a runner. Alabama played Tennessee that way for most of the game, and the Vols still found the chunk plays. The alternative path could be to bring pressure against Tennessee, and get hits on Hooker. The Pitt defense played it that way, and the Vols couldn’t find the big plays in the second half. A few of those plays will be there on Saturday. How does Tennessee run the ball against this Kentucky defense though? The Vols busted a few big runs against the Cats in the second half last season, but that was only after going into halftime with negative rushing yards. The Cats will once again be without linebacker Jacquez Jones, last season’s leading tackler. The Cats could get away with playing plenty of dime personnel against Mississippi State. If Kentucky plays six defensive backs against Tennessee, the Vols have to make them pay in the run game.
More from RTI: Heupel Says No Change To McCollough’s Status Despite Independent Review Board Clearance
Tennessee Uniforms: Tennessee Announces Uniforms For Top 20 Matchup Against Kentucky
Matchup to watch on Defense: Pressuring Will Levis. Kentucky’s offensive line has allowed the highest pressure rate in the SEC, as well as allowing the most sacks in the conference. This is a stark departure from last year’s unit. The Cats have already allowed more sacks through seven games than through all thirteen games last season. Kentucky had its way with Tennessee’s defense last season in Lexington. The Vols never forced a punt, and gave up over 600 yards of offense on 99 plays. Levis was great overall, but did succumb to moments of pressure in the second half. The Vols have the home crowd behind them on Saturday, and will do their best to make Levis very uncomfortable in this game.
Outside of creating negative plays and turnovers, Tennessee needs to use pressure to simply get off the field on Saturday. This defense allowed the Cats to convert 12/17 third downs last season. Tennessee has been noticeably better on third down this season; dropping opponents’ conversion rate from 42% to 33%. Tim Banks is comfortable with an aggressive defensive scheme, and that won’t change on Saturday. The risk is obviously leaving Tennessee’s corners on an island with very talented Kentucky receivers. Barion Brown is a big play waiting to happen if the Vols aren’t careful.
Fun Fact: Josh Heupel versus the Stoops family makes for some fun football drama. The history is fairly deep, and a new layer gets added this year as Mike Stoops has joined Kentucky’s staff as a linebackers coach. Everyone knows Brother Bob Stoops fired Josh Heupel as his OC in 2014, a decision which Stoops called the toughest of his life. He did so despite Heupel’s offense averaging 37 ppg in Big 12 play. His defense, led by brother Mike Stoops, was pretty pedestrian at over 29 ppg in conference play. It has certainly led some to question whether Bob just didn’t want to fire his brother. That would be a fair stance to take, even if no one would ever admit it. I guarantee you Josh Heupel has not forgotten the Stoops brothers though
So What Happens: This game was nuts last year. Go back and watch the extended highlights if you’ve forgotten it. I don’t think it was Kentucky’s game plan to try to outduel Tennessee in a shootout, but they almost did. Tennessee forced Kentucky into a track meet. On Saturday, I think Kentucky wants to force Tennessee into a slower game. The Cats have allowed 24 or fewer points in 11 straight games. Tennessee has scored 30+ in ten straight games. Something has to give on Saturday. Mark Stoops and Will Levis are averaging just under 21 ppg together in six SEC road starts. In 39 games on the road in the SEC, Stoops’ offense has eclipsed 30 points just six times. Three of those were at Vanderbilt Stadium. Kentucky’s path to victory on Saturday rests heavy on the shoulders of Chris Rodriguez. Overall, the Cats rushing numbers have taken a nosedive this season. A lot of that is due to poor offensive line play. A lot of that is due to Rodriguez missing the month of September. He has looked really good since returning, rushing for almost 200 yard against Mississippi State. It is a good test for a Tennessee run defense giving up only 2.89 ypc. Kentucky ran over this Tennessee front seven last season. Can they do it again on Saturday in front of a rowdy Neyland Stadium crowd, one that will see Tennessee debut black helmets for the first time? This is Kentucky’s Super Bowl, and they are playing it off a bye week. There is nothing Kentucky football savors more than a win over Tennessee in football, and handing the Vols their first loss of the season would be the extra cherry on top. The Cats won their last game inside Neyland Stadium, a game that likely sealed the fate of Jeremy Pruitt. It was Kentucky’s first win in Knoxville since 1984. 1984 was the last time Kentucky beat a Tennessee team that finished with a winning record. Kentucky will be ready to play on Saturday, and will have some wrinkles for Tennessee coming off their bye week. Tennessee is too dialed in offensively to stumble at home. Eventually, the Vols’ offense will force Kentucky into a chase. The Cats aren’t built to play that type of game on the road. Tennessee 38, Kentucky 27