After the second idle week of the season, Kentucky returns to Kroger Field and this time they will be facing a very familiar foe. Jeremy Pruitt will be making his first trip to Lexington as the head coach of the Big Orange and the Vols have gotten on a bit of a roll. UK has a chance to finish the season very strong and a win on Saturday would give them a chance at a .500 finish in SEC play for the fourth season in a row. Not even Bear Bryant could accomplish that.
Nuts and Bolts
Following the 1998 season, Tennessee brought home their sixth national championship and many considered Phillip Fulmer one of the best coaches in in college football. In six-plus seasons, Fulmer posted a 67-11 overall record with a robust 43-7 mark in SEC play. The program was on top of the world, but it has been a rocky two decades sense.
In his last decade in Knoxville, Fulmer went just 85-41 before being fired in 2008 after joining the staff as an assistant in 1980. Tennessee’s goal was to win more as they felt they had plateaued under their alum. However, it was the opposite that happened.
Since letting Fulmer go, Tennessee is 66-68 under four different head coaches with an ugly 27-58 record in SEC play. The Vols have posted just one winning season in league play in that time. It has been an ugly run for a very proud program.
After an embarrassing coaching search following the dismissal of Butch Jones, we saw the Vols bring in Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt after Fulmer took over the athletic director duties. It was a disappointing 5-7 season in year one, but Pruitt picked up two big upset wins by knocking off Auburn and Kentucky. However, 2019 could not have gotten off to a worse start.
In the first two weeks, the Vols dropped games to Georgia State and BYU in Neyland Stadium and many feared that Tennessee could be in for a very, very long season. However, Pruitt has rallied the troops in year two despite an unpredictable quarterback situation. The Vols were competitive in losses to Alabama and Georgia while picking up two upset wins at home against Mississippi State and South Carolina. They are playing good football entering the home stretch.
This will be the 115th meeting in the series with Tennessee owning a commanding 80-25-9 series lead. Everyone knows about that 26-game winning streak that the Vols held over the Wildcats from 1985-2010, but they have also had their way with UK this decade. The Vols are 7-2 in this matchup with each win occurring by double-digits. Four times we’ve seen Tennessee score at least 37 points. UK has only scored over 30 once during this decade.
Out in the desert, Tennessee is a one-point with a total of 41.5. That’s a projected final score around 21-20. On the season, UK is 5-2-1 against the spread while UT is 5-4 with four consecutive covers. Under Jeremy Pruitt, the Vols are 3-4 ATS as favorites. This will be the first SEC game where UT is laying points since 2017. Since 2016, Mark Stoops is 12-8-1 ATS in SEC games as a dog and 5-0 at home when not facing Georgia.
It didn’t take long for Jeremy Pruitt to realize he needed a change on the offensive side of the football. Tyson Helton was brought in from USC and he left after 2018 to become the head coach at WKU, but many believed that was a move best for both parties. To find their next head coach, the Vols opened up the checkbook.
Jim Chaney had been an offensive coordinator at five different FBS programs including a previous stop at Tennessee from 2009-2012 under Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley. He served as the interim head coach after Dooley was fired and would move on to call plays for Pat Narduzzi at Pittsburgh, Bret Bielema at Arkansas, and Kirby Smart at Georgia. He has a lot of experience running offenses for defensive head coaches and Phillip Fulmer convinced the big money people that the football program had to have Chaney back.
Tennessee signed Chaney to a three-year contract that will pay him $1.5 million this season and will increase by $100,000 each season through 2021. This made him the highest paid offensive coordinator in college football. The Vols are all in on Chaney and their big hires did not stop there. UT also brought national championship quarterback Tee Martin home after serving as USC’s offensive coordinator last season.
This season in Chaney’s pro-style attack, the Vols don’t have great numbers when you look at them thorough an SEC lens. UT is 10th in scoring, 11th in yards per play, 7th in third down efficiency, and tied 9th in big play rate. However, despite starting three former five-star recruits on the offensive line, this group has struggled to run the football.
The offense ranks dead last in the conference and 96th nationally in yards per carry and is the only team averaging less than four yards per attempt. Ty Chandler is the best of the bunch and is putting up over five yards per carry. He has some juice in the open field with three 30-plus yard rushes. Backups Tim Jordan and Eric Gray have combined for just 3.78 yards per carry. Despite the ineffectiveness, Tennessee runs the ball nearly 40 times per game. They’ve had success because they’ve been bailed out by their passing game despite a revolving door at quarterback.
Jarrett Guarantano was a top-100 prospect out of New Jersey who became a starter in 2017 after redshirting in 2016. Last year was a rocky season, but he showed some nice progress and many thought he could be due for a big jump this fall. While he’s played the best of the group (60.9 percent completion rate, 8.0 yards per attempt, 144.36 QB rating, 11 touchdowns) he’s done some things that have irked the coaching staff and that has turned into some young guys getting some playing time.
Brian Maurer got his first action in a blowout loss to Florida in The Swamp and received his first collegiate start. The three-star true freshman played well in the home loss to Georgia (9.3 yards per attempt) but was injured in the fourth quarter. He recovered in time to start against Mississippi State. However, he was knocked out of that game and the following contest against Alabama. He’s had a very hard time staying healthy and hasn’t seen the field the last two weeks despite being cleared to play.
After Guarantano broke a bone in his non-throwing hand in the win over South Carolina, redshirt freshman J.T. Shrout stepped into the lineup to complete 7 of 11 passes for 122 yards. However, he played in a backup role against UAB last week. This job is Guarantano’s to lose, but don’t be surprised if you see more than one quarterback take snaps on Saturday.
The best player in the offense is found at wide receiver and Jauan Jennings might be the best wideout in the SEC not on Alabama or LSU’s roster.
The redshirt senior is about the biggest slot receiver you can find (6-foot-3) and he leads the team with 47 grabs, 722 yards, and seven touchdowns. He’s on his way to All-SEC honors and will be a tremendous challenge for UK’s secondary. The next closest Tennessee wideout has 18 grabs. This passing game goes as N0. 15 goes and sometimes they even put him at wildcat to give the ground game a spark. Slow him down and it could be a long day for the Volunteers.
On the offensive line, there is plenty of talent, but the Vols are still trying to build a cohesive unit. This group struggles with consistency in the run game while ranking 10th in the SEC in sacks allowed. Left guard Trey Smith is the best of the bunch and this is likely his last season in college. Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright are both five-star true frosh starting at tackle and they have been a roller coaster through nine games.
Offense wasn’t the only place that Jeremy Pruitt wanted to mix things up following last season. After serving as both the head coach and primary defensive play-caller in 2018, Pruitt realized he needed to delegate the duties to someone else. The man he hired is one very familiar with the Kentucky football program.
Derrick Ansley was the secondary coach the first three years for Mark Stoops in Lexington before moving to Tuscaloosa to work for Nick Saban two seasons. After one year with the Oakland Raiders, Pruitt brought his former Alabama secondary coach to Knoxville to run a defense for the first time in his career. They are paying him handsomely (three-year contract worth $3 million).
The Vols run a very similar 3-4 scheme to what you will see at Alabama and Georgia. They want to stop the run and keep everything in front in the passing game. SP+ has this defense ranked 26th and they do a great job at limiting big plays. Opponents have only produced 23 gains of 20-plus yards and this is tied for seventh best nationally. They are really good at rushing the passer (tied second in the SEC in sacks). Ansley’s defense is led by a trio of seniors that each make an impact at all three levels.
Sam linebacker Darrell Taylor entered his redshirt senior as the sack leader among returning SEC players and Tennessee counts on him to provide a consistent edge rush. He wrecked Kentucky’s offensive line and Terry Wilson for four sacks in last year’s upset win. This season he’s produced six sacks through the first eight games. Not only does he rush the passer, but the outside linebacker will play a key role in setting the edge in the run game.
At the second level, Mike linebacker Daniel Bituli missed the first two games of the season when the Vols got off to an ugly 0-2 start with home losses to Georgia State and BYU. Since Bituli’s return, the defense has played really well and he is a big reason why. The 252-pound backer is an excellent run stuffer and he will be a force trying to stop UK’s potent ground attack. Next to him at Will is true freshman Henry To’o To’o and the high four-star recruit out of Sacramento was a big late recruiting win for the staff. He will be a key in eliminating running lanes.
In the secondary, safety Nigel Warrior leads the team with 50 tackles and three interceptions. The senior and former top-60 prospect out of high school leads a secondary that is loaded with underclassmen and most notably true freshman Jaylen McCollough who plays both safety and nickel.
Special Teams Breakdown
At placekicker, Tennessee returned Brent Cimaglia and he has been excellent. The Nashville native has the highest field goal percentage in program history and has bailed out a bad red zone offense many times. On the year, he’s hit 18 of 20 attempts and collected four field goal makes in the last trip to Lexington.
In the return department, Marquez Callaway is one of the best punt returners in college football and Kentucky must keep the ball out of his hands.
The senior wideout is putting up over 20 yards per return this season and UK will need Max Duffy to be on his game.
When it comes to the other areas, the Vols are very pedestrian in the kick return game and UK has a huge advantage in the punting department. Paxt0n Brooks has a touchback rate just over 75 percent so there should be kick return opportunities for the home team.
Keys to Victory
- The Vols don’t give up big plays, but they rank 13th in the SEC in third down defense. A big reason for that is because they have allowed 127 plays that have gone for at least 10 yards, While not getting gashed, they consistently give up paper cuts. To get these gains, Kentucky must get production from their running backs. Help out Lynn Bowden, Jr. with successful runs and find a way to be efficient in the many third-and-short situations that will arise.
- There is no hiding from the fact that Tennessee has a really ugly rushing attack. Outside of Ty Chandler, the Vols really get nothing positive on the ground and that is no good for a pro-style offense. Kentucky’s front has had issues slowing down opposing rush offenses this season. They must bow up and make Tennessee one-dimensional.
- The kicking game is excellent, but the red zone offense isn’t. Tennessee has a red zone touchdown rate of just 43.75 percent and this ranks 126th nationally. UK’s red zone defense has been improved in recent weeks and they must be able to force field goals when Tennessee creates scoring opportunities.
- The middle eight is a popular term in the analytics world these days and it refers to the last four minutes of the first half and first four minutes of the second half. The team that wins this battle has a great chance at victory and could very well swing a game between two very close teams. Last season, the Vols used the middle eight to score 14 points and stretch a 3-0 game to 17-0 before the halftime break. Two weeks ago against Mizzou, UK used the middle eight to turn a 12-0 lead into a three-touchdown game. Another way to look at situational football.
Bring Back the Trash Can
Remember this? How could you forget it? To begin the last season of the Butch Jones era, Tennessee decided to join the turnover prop game on the sideline and, for some unknown reason, they decided to use a Rubbermaid trash can that all of us can find at our local Walmart.
A Tennessee assistant coach apparently tried to motivate players with a large trash can last night. ? pic.twitter.com/gfYnmp3klp
— Sporting News (@sportingnews) September 5, 2017
Those were some good memories.