After defeating UT Martin a week ago, Tennessee opens a five-game stretch of SEC games to end the regular season Saturday night against No. 19 Kentucky.
The Vols defeated Kentucky in a thriller in Lexington a season ago and has dominated the border rivalry for the last four decades. Tennessee enters the week nine matchup as double-digit favorites as it looks to remain unbeaten on the season.
Here’s three keys to a Tennessee victory.
Control The Game’s Pace
Tennessee and Kentucky play at radically different paces. The Vols’ offense moves at warp speed while Kentucky’s pro style offense slows down the game. There is no better example of the differences in tempo than last season’s game in Lexington when Kentucky possessed the ball for 45 of the game’s 60 minutes.
Tennessee is the better team in this one and if they can keep Kentucky from shortening the game that bodes well for the Vols avoiding the upset.
Another point to look at the disparity in tempo is the 62 over/under. The under has hit five times in seven Kentucky games this season while the over has hit five times in seven Tennessee games this season. If the over hits in this one it bodes well for Tennessee. Kentucky’s chances of keeping up in a high tempo, high possession shootout is unlikely.
One key stat to follow as it pertains to the game’s pace in Kentucky’s third down offense. The Wildcats converted 12-of-17 third down attempts in the matchup a season ago and that allowed Kentucky to possess the ball for 45 minutes.
Tennessee’s defense winning third down will be key to the Vols controlling the tempo.
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Finish Drives In The End Zone
Kentucky’s defense does a fantastic job of limiting explosive passing plays. Its one of the main reasons the Wildcats boast one of the SEC’s top defenses.
Tennessee’s offense is explosive enough to still hit some big plays against Kentucky but I don’t expect the Vols to score three touchdowns over 30 yards like they did against Alabama.
While Kentucky’s defense does a good job of limiting big plays, they don’t create many negative plays. The Wildcats rank 13th in the SEC in sacks and their pass rush is their biggest defensive weakness.
Tennessee is going to be able to move the ball against nearly any offense that doesn’t keep them behind the chains. Kentucky hasn’t done a good job of that to this point in the season. The ability to move the ball but be limited in chunk plays makes red zone offense extremely important.
The good news for Tennessee is that its offense has been as efficient as any in the entire country inside the red zone. Tennessee has scored every single time it’s been in the red zone this season and has finished every goal-to-goal situation in the end zone.
If Tennessee continues that success against the Wildcats, its offense is bound to have success.
Win Along The Defensive Line Of Scrimmage
Kentucky’s pass rush is its defenses biggest weakness and its offensive line is its offenses biggest weakness. That creates opportunity for a Tennessee defensive line that’s been its defense’s strength this year.
We’ve already talked about the importance of winning third down. Winning third down will be much easier if Tennessee can limit the Wildcats run game.
Kentucky’s rushing attack struggled badly earlier in the season but has improved since star running back Chris Rodriguez returned from suspension. Still, Tennessee’s strong rushing defense is capable of taming the Wildcat rushing offense.
Forcing Will Levis to beat them on third-and-long is a recipe for defensive success. Once Tennessee puts the Wildcats in passing downs, the Vols have to get home. Tennessee’s secondary is its biggest weakness and Levis is more than capable of carving them up if not under pressure.
Tennessee blitzes frequently. I expect that to continue against Kentucky. If the Vols can control the defensive front and pressure Levis, Tennessee’s defense should do more than enough to hold up against Kentucky.