Prior to Auburn week, national and regional perception about Kentucky Football had a much different feel. Many thought as if that game would be the one to catapult the Cats into the SEC East race. An inconsistent first half and second half of missed opportunities diminished the positive vibe and rave reviews. Kentucky let one slip through their fingers, both figuratively and literally.
Last Saturday’s performance in Starkville doubled down on the doubters. That frame of mind references both in and outside the Commonwealth of Kentucky. As we’ve said before, the SEC is unforgiving. Here come the Volunteers.
Not many are giving the Wildcats a chance for a Saturday win.
Numbers supporting that theory:
–Kentucky has struggled against dual threat, running quarterbacks. QB Joshua Dobbs is UT’s second leading rusher as he averages 55 yards per game. For the year, Dobbs is 6th in the SEC’s Total Offense category by producing 237 yards per contest.
-Tennessee is the SEC’s 3rd leading rushing team averaging 209 yards per game.
-Our neighbors to the south are averaging 33.9 points per game. That’s good enough for 4th in the league.
-Absent Melvin Lewis, the consensus is Kentucky will struggle against Tennessee’s powerful running back, Jalen Hurd. Hurd is a load. At 6’4 240 pounds, the super sophomore presents all kinds of problems for opposing defenses, averaging 94 rushing yards per game.
-The Vols are coming off a close loss to Alabama. The Tide have been the SEC’s standard. Tennessee stalemated and at times dominated the line of scrimmage with two true freshmen on its offensive line. UT’s defensive line shed blockers and at times, controlled the point of attack. The result was 10 tackles for loss and 5 QB sacks in Tuscaloosa.
-Kick returner Evan Berry leads the nation by averaging 38.7 yards per return. As a team, Tennessee is also ranked at the top in this category.
There are reasons for Big Blue optimism.
–The Tennessee defense has a propensity to surrender explosive plays. It’s given up 34 plays of 20+ yards, 17 plays of 30+, 11 plays of 40+, and 5 plays of 50 or more yards.
-Tennessee is ranked 13th in the conference against the pass while UK is 5th in passing offense.
-Given totally different starting points in terms of talent and inherited roster, only four wins separate the records of UT’s Butch Jones and Kentucky’s Mark Stoops. In actuality, Stoops has done more with much less.
-Neither team is sacking opposing quarterbacks at a high rate. UT is 8th with 14, UK is 12th with 12 QB sacks. They’re both giving up a large number of sacks as well. Tennessee’s 10th in the league with 16, Kentucky is ties at 11th by surrendering 20 QB sacks through seven games.
-Kentucky and Tennessee have both lost to teams they shouldn’t have. Arkansas won in Neyland Stadium, and Auburn beat UK in Lexington.
-Kentucky players cannot be happy about what happened in last year’s game.
Kentucky can win if:
–It manages to slow the power run. Tennessee’s bread and butter play is the basis for its play action and quarterback runs.
–Creates two or more turnovers. This especially applies to special teams. A fumbled kickoff or punt return can swing momentum.
-Force QB Joshua Dobbs to stay in the pocket. Maintaining gap and rush lane responsibility should have been an area of concern following Mr. Prescott’s evening last weekend.
–Protect the quarterback. Kentucky is near the bottom of the SEC (and the nation) in negative plays. Many of those negative plays have surfaced on first down. On first down against Mississippi State, UK had two offensive penalties, dropped four passes, and threw one interception. The Cats must play ahead of the chains.
–Catch the football. This goes along with 1st down woes. Wasted opportunities have been commonplace in the Wildcats three losses. The way to possibly beat the Volunteers is through the air. Once that is established, a run game can support. UK has two players in the SEC’s Top 10 in receptions per game: Dorian Baker averages 5.4 and Garrett Johnson’s 4.9 catches per game.
Where is this Kentucky team?
-I originally felt that the Miss. State game represented a step backwards. Deeper thought and evaluation indicated it was more of a side-step. If the Cats display the same negative mannerisms against Tennessee, then reassessment will be required.
-Last year’s loss in Knoxville was embarrassing. I can remember watching the two teams in pregame warmups. On a cold night, Tennessee players came out of the tunnel shirtless and looking to self-motivate and intimidate its visitors. It must have worked. While the Vols were focused on running up the score, a segment of UK players appeared more concerned about the whereabouts of the heaters on the sideline. The result was a 50-16 butt whoopin’.
-To beat a very talented 3-4 football team, UK will have to play a clean, four quarter football game. No lapses in effort or concentration. Each play must be accounted for because as we witnessed last season, the score and game can get out of hand in a hurry.
-Kentucky can win this game. In order to do so, it cannot afford to have missed opportunities and must take advantage of potential Tennessee miscues. The gap between the two programs is closing.
See y’all in Commonwealth Stadium.