Kentucky is fresh off a very tough loss but there is no time to sulk in the SEC. Next up is a road trip to Knoxville to take on a Tennessee squad that is fighting and clawing for bowl eligibility in Jeremy Pruitt’s first season on Rocky Top.
It’s the game a lot of Kentucky fans want to win the most each season and for consecutive meetings the Wildcats enter as the betting favorite over the Volunteers. UK still has a chance to have a special season but to do that they must pick up the win on the road in Neyland Stadium.
Nuts and Bolts
Man, it has been a rough run for this Tennessee football program. Philip Fulmer took over at his alma mater full-time in 1993 and in the next six seasons the Vols won two SEC titles and a national championship. Fulmer looked set to have the Big Orange on top of the college football world for the very distant future.
Then things went south.
Phillip Fulmer would lead the Vols to two more SEC East titles, but Tennessee would only have one top 10 finish after winning the national championship in 1998. A year after winning 10 games and the SEC East in 2oo7, the former Tennessee offensive lineman was let go of his duties the next season following his second losing mark in four years.
What happened next no one saw coming.
In this decade, Tennessee has had at least six losses in seven seasons and the 2018 squad is just one loss away from that mark. Outside of 2015, Tennessee has not posted a winning record in SEC play and the one time powerhouse is searching to find itself.
After a somewhat embarrassing coaching search in November and December, Phillip Fulmer was welcomed back into the athletic department and was named the athletic director. His first move was to hire a football coach and after a week or so he landed on Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
So far the results have been much of the same.
Tennessee enters Week 11 with a 4-5 record with winnable games remaining on the schedule. The Vols are trying to get back to the postseason and getting to a bowl would be a significant achievement for Jeremy Pruitt. The former Alabama high school coach has been around the block a few times and he knows what it takes to win. Pruitt ran the defense under Jimbo Fisher at Florida State following the departure of Mark Stoops and then moved to Georgia to work for Mark Richt for two seasons. Unlike other Saban disciples, he’s seen the cake baked different ways to produce a winner.
You know all about the streak that UK broke in 2011, but since that game Kentucky is just 1-5 against Tennessee. The Vols own the series lead by a count of 79-25-9. Kentucky has not won in Neyland Stadium since 1984.
Out in the desert, Kentucky is currently a 5.5 point favorite with a total of 42. That’s a projected final score of around 24-18. During the Mark Stoops era, Kentucky has never been an SEC road favorite.
In his first significant hire, Jeremy Pruitt headed out to the west coast to find the man to run his offense. Tyson Helton, the younger brother of USC head coach Clay Helton, worked under Jeff Brohm for two seasons at WKU before moving to USC to serve in a co-coordinator role. With Helton, Tennessee is utilizing a pro-style scheme with a play-caller that had been apart of some of college football’s most prolific passing offenses.
In his first season, the results have been promising. Jarrett Guarantano has taken significant strides and the dual-threat prospect out of New Jersey has developed into strictly a pocket passer. Guarantano has improved on both his yards per attempt average and completion percentage in the new scheme and was very effective in the road upset over Auburn.
The passing game has been bolstered by two very good outside receivers. Both Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings are physical outside targets who have made plays vertically all season. The jump ball and back shoulder fades are a big part of this offense.
Outside of them, Tennessee does not have a dependable possession receiver to go to in the slot and tight end is a big question mark. If you can cover outside the numbers, this Tennessee passing game should not scare you. This may be what UK does best.
SEC quarterbacks are completing 11.4% of their downfield attempts versus Kentucky's dominant defense pic.twitter.com/7R2agouVTF
— CFB Film Room (@CFBFilmRoom) November 7, 2018
Part of the reason the Tennessee offense becomes ineffective is because of the lack of balance. For the season, the Vols rank last in the SEC with just 127.7 rushing yards per game. Their yards per carry average of 3.4 ranks 117th in the FBS. This has been a major problem with the offense all season.
Tim Jordan leads the team with 414 rushing yards but the Vols have been fishing for answers at the running back position. Four different players have received over 40 carries on the season with no one as a legit weapon to this point in the season. The contributions have been disappointing, but they are not getting much room to operate.
Tennessee’s offensive line has been decimated by injuries with their starting center being lost for the season early in the schedule and potential All-American Trey Smith now out for the year. The superstar sophomore dominated in the game against Kentucky last season, but is now being held out of all football activities due to a blood clot in his lungs. In the new scheme, it has been quite a challenge for this group.
Not only is Tennessee not creating lanes for their running backs, they are not protecting the quarterback in pass situations on top of it. UT’s sack rate of 8.5% ranks 109th in the FBS and this has contributed heavily to the offenses inefficiencies. Kentucky recorded seven sacks against the Vols last season and they could put up another big number on Saturday.
As a whole, Tennessee can hurt you when they have time to setup the vertical passing game. The problem has been finding balance and consistently being able to protect when the time comes to take some deep shots. In addition to allowing sacks, this offense has been very bad at preventing tackles for loss in the run game.
The Vols are dead last in the SEC in scoring offense and 13th in yards per play. This will be the least productive FBS offense UK has seen since the week one win over Central Michigan.
At all stops during his college career, Jeremy Pruitt has used a 3-4 scheme and that is exactly what Tennessee is rolling with in 2018. Similar to Georgia, UT will run the same looks and try to do the same things but they don’t have the personnel to pull it off.
The Volunteers are well coached on this side of the football, but currently the roster does not have the talent to do what this defense is asking them to do. Therefore, Tennessee isn’t horrible at anything but they are also not specifically good at anything.
Opponents are putting up 26.7 points per game and 5.8 yards per play. Both of these rank near the bottom of the pack in the SEC. The Vols have played some really good offenses in Alabama, Georgia, and West Virginia but even teams after that are consistently having success moving the football.
Along the defensive line has been a real issue. Defensive end Kyle Phillips is having a productive season as a senior. The Nashville native was a blue-chip prospect out of high school but has mostly been a disappointment in Knoxville. This year he is fifth on the squad in tackles and is UT’s best disruptor on the line of scrimmage. After that, Tennessee isn’t getting much production.
At the second level is where the strength of the defense is. Inside linebackers Daniel Bituli and Darrin Kirkland Jr. are both really good football players. The duo has combined for 102 tackles, eight tackles for loss, and 11.5 run stuffs (run stops at or behind the line of scrimmage).
The last two weeks UK has struggled to get blockers to the second level and that will be vital against this Tennessee front seven.
In the secondary, Nigel Warrior is one of the better safeties in the SEC and he will impact the game in both run support and pass coverage. At corner, true freshman Alontae Taylor has been one of the best cover corners in the SEC and he has a very bright future.
The following cornerbacks have allowed the fewest yards per cover snap so far in 2018. pic.twitter.com/lifqnlobuu
— PFF College (@PFF_College) November 7, 2018
The diaper dandy will be suspended in the first half on Saturday due to a targeting penalty against Charlotte last week.
On paper, Tennessee will be the lowest ranked FBS defense UK has faced this season. Per S&P+, the Vols ranking 90th in overall defensive efficiency. This is a much needed change for a Kentucky offense that has seen five top 50 defenses this season.
Special Teams Breakdown
The best overall unit on UT’s team happens to be in special teams. Brent Cimaglia has been an excellent kicker and the Vols have gotten excellent return production from Marquez Callaway and Ty Chandler.
Where UK may find an advantage is in the return game.
The Vols are averaging less than 40 yards net on each punt but they’re simply not giving up returns. On kickoffs, Paxton Brooks only has a 41.9% touchback rate and that’s a nice change after facing Rodrigo Blankenship last week. On returns, opponents have been able to pick up some quality hidden yardage. Lynn Bowden will get a chance to make a difference.
Keys to Victory
- Kentucky hasn’t scored more than 20 points in a game since September. That’s hard to believe, but they’ve been able to keep winning. That streak must stop on Saturday. In their last three games, UK will be up against three defenses they should be able to move the ball on. Kentucky must have success early and gain some confidence.
- Kentucky’s run defense has been strong all season, but last week they were pushed around by a physical Georgia club. Facing a very anemic ground game, they must get back on track at Neyland Stadium. Stop the run and then UK’s pass rush should be able to tee up against shaky pass protection. UK has good matchups on the outside and could be dominant on Saturday if UT can’t get the ground game going.
- The Wildcats have struggled to run the ball since September and that has played a big role in their scoring offense struggles. In the win over Vanderbilt, UK didn’t produce many explosive plays even with 280 rushing yards. On Saturday, it may be a good idea to pass early to setup the run. The Vols will be without their best cover corner to start the game and that should be advantage to Kentucky. Terry Wilson has played very well two games in a row and he should be able to have another very productive passing effort.
- Kentucky has had one of the finest backed up defense in the country all year. As a team, the Wildcats are only giving up 3.3 points per scoring opportunity and this ranks fifth in the FBS. Last week, however, Georgia was able to score on every red zone possession and that caused the loss to get ugly. UK must prove that was a one game scenario and get back to their standard this Saturday.
From Smokey, to Rocky Top, to the checkerboards, Tennessee has a lot of unique traditions. The Vols love to obnoxiously sing that song and running through the T coming out of the locker room. But the most unique thing Tennessee does happens on the water.
Along the Tennessee River you will see over 200 boats lined up and tailgating in what is now known as the Vol Navy. It really is a unique tradition that you can only find in Knoxville.