Tennessee (4-5) vs. Kentucky (5-5)
Saturday, 4 p.m. ET
Neyland Stadium (102,455) • Knoxville, Tenn.
TV: SEC Network
Series Record: Tennessee leads 76-24-9
Setting the table:
The College Football Playoffs start this year, and while this game between Tennessee and Kentucky will have zero implications on the actual playoffs, this game will have somewhat of a playoff feel for these two teams in terms of them reaching their goals for the season. Kentucky, coming off a two-win season in 2013, can clinch bowl eligibility with a win. Tennessee needs two more wins on the season to do the same, but with an overmatched Vanderbilt team still on the schedule, a win on Saturday would put the Vols in ideal position to return to the postseason for the first time since 2010. Tennessee has absolutely owned this series in the modern era, winning 28 of its last 29 against the Wildcats. But this Kentucky team is better than many they’ve seen, and the young Vols are still figuring out how to win on a consistent basis. Tennessee comes into this game favored and with several matchups it can expose. But don’t expect the Wildcats to go quietly in this one as coach Mark Stoops has instilled a higher level of competitiveness and has upped the skill level for Kentucky.
Where Kentucky has the edge:
The Wildcats have moved the ball on virtually everybody they’ve played this season. With Tennessee’s defense slumping a bit, UK quarterback Patrick Towles could have a chance to put some big numbers passing, and possibly running at times. Kentucky might not have anybody as explosive as South Carolina’s Pharoh Cooper or Alabama’s Amari Cooper, but the Vols have been apt to give up big plays in their last two games. Look for UK to hit a few of those on Saturday. Watch out for defensive end Bud Dupree as well. The high-level NFL prospect will have a clear athleticism edge over UT’s offensive tackles. UT will need to value ball security as well against a team ranked third in the conference in turnover margin (+8).
Where Tennessee has the edge:
The Vols should be able to run almost at will against the Wildcats. Since quarterback Joshua Dobbs took over the offense on the third drive against Alabama, the Vols have piled up 505 rushing yards in less than two full games. The Wildcats are second to last in the SEC in rushing defense, allowing 200 yards per contest and they’re coming off a game where they gave up over 300 to Georgia. That’s a huge edge for the Vols. And if Kentucky stacks the box too much, expect Dobbs to make some big throws to his playmakers such as Pig Howard, Marquez North, Von Pearson, Josh Malone and others.
“I see a team that’s improving each and every single week. I see a quarterback that has great command, that’s got a lot of confidence. I think they’re doing some really good things with him in the running game.”
– Tennessee defensive coordinator John Jancek on Kentucky
• The Vols have won 14 straight home games against the Wildcats.
• This will be the second game Tennessee has played against a member of the Stoops family. Mark Stoops’ brother, Bob Stoops, is the head coach at Oklahoma, Tennessee’s opponent on Week 3.
• This will be the first time that Dobbs has faced an opponent as a starter for the second time. Dobbs had a big game in a win at Kentucky last year, throwing for 199 yards and two touchdowns and adding 52 yards and another score on the ground.
The Vols are favored by about a touchdown. If you look just at the body of work and the numbers for both teams, they are fairly evenly-matched. But the trajectory of these two teams seems to be heading in different directions. The Vols are coming off a big win at South Carolina and got a week off to rest and prepare for the Wildcats. Kentucky, meanwhile, has dropped four straight and might be running out of gas as this is its eighth straight week in a row without a bye. The Vols should be able to run wild on the Wildcats if recent history is a good indicator. If they do that, it’ll be tough for UK to leave Neyland Stadium with a win. But if the Wildcats get turnovers and Tennessee’s defense keeps struggling, it could get very interesting. Tennessee is the safe bet, though there are very few givens in the SEC.