At 3-4, our southern neighbors visit Commonwealth Stadium after disappointing yet competitive loss to Alabama. Last Saturday, Tennessee gave the Tide all it could handle before Bama scored late to secure the win.
Tennessee is talented. Its roster is littered with future NFL players; however, the majority are freshmen and sophomores.
Kentucky is coming off its least productive performance of the season. It did face a dynamic player in QB Dak Prescott and his merry band of veterans.
Can the Cats rebound? Will UK clean up first down offensive miscues? Will a resemblance of a pass rush be established?
All these questions will be answered on Saturday. Here’s a look at how position groups stack up:
In his last 13 starts, QB Joshua Dobbs is 8-5 as the Volunteer offense has averaged 422 yards per game. Dobbs is a cerebral football player and excellent student. His ability to extend plays by running the football has proven to be challenging for opposing defenses. For the year, Dobbs has completed 111-of-191 passes for 1272 yards, nine touchdowns, and two interceptions. With a rushing attack that is rated third in the SEC, Dobbs has the benefit of a consistent non-throwing offensive threat.
By averaging 247 yards per game, Patrick Towles is the SEC’s fourth leading passer. However, with a 9-8 INT/TD ratio, Dobbs passer efficiency rating is higher. Given the number of dropped touchdown passes, this number is somewhat deceiving. Patrick is ranked fourth in the SEC in Total Offense, Dobbs is sixth.
Running Back: Tennessee
All 6’4 240 pounds of RB Jalen Hurd runs downhill and will put a tremendous amount of pressure on the Kentucky defense. The league’s sixth leading rusher averages 94.9 yards per game and has scored 8 touchdowns. Backup and former Alabama RB Alvin Kamara scored two critical touchdowns in UT’s win over Georgia.
Against Mississippi State, Boom Williams displayed patience as he navigated a physical Bulldog defense. Boom also excelled in blitz pickup. Results weren’t prevailing, however last Saturday was possibly Williams’ most complete game as a Wildcat. True freshman Sihiem King showed flash and grit.
Wide Receiver: Even
UK receiving corps is well coached, routes are clean, but has struggled to catch the football. At some point in time, a complete game must be played. This Saturday could be just that day. Even with the drops, UK has two receivers in the SEC’s top ten in receptions per game: sixth Dorian Baker and tenth, Garrett Johnson. CJ Conrad is now established as a pass catching threat to accompany his blocking prowess.
Josh Smith is UT’s best receiver at finding defensive voids as Von Pearson and Josh Malone have added a home-run threats for Coach Butch Jones. TE Ethan Wolf has 16 catches on the year and if you remember, was a vital contributor in last year’s embarrassment in Knoxville. Tennessee receivers are skilled, but don’t have as many catches as the Cat receivers.
Offensive Line: Tennessee
Impressively; two true freshman, G Jack Jones and T Chance Hall, anchor the right side of the offensive line. Both have made the most of the opportunity and have played well against elite defenses. As a group, Tennessee has effectively executed the power run but has given up 16 QB sacks. UT is also the least penalized team in the SEC. This is an indication of fundamental development up front.
The Cats need to clean up pass protection and become more physical at the point of attack. While Boom Williams rushed for 119 yards against MSU, he also lost nearly 20 due to negative plays. Patrick Towles and Drew Barker were under pressure for the majority of the game. Kentucky quarterbacks have been sacked 20 times.
Defensive Line: Tennessee
Tennessee’s QB sack total is lesser than expected, however it did had 10 tackles for loss and 5 QB sacks at Alabama. During the Vol’s comeback win against Georgia, its DL controlled the line of scrimmage. Sophomore DE Derek Barnett is an elite pass rusher. As a freshman, he recorded 20 tackles for loss and 10 QB sacks. True freshman Kahlil McKenzie is a load, 6’3 344. DT Owen Williams had 6 tackles vs. the Crimson Tide. Up front, UT defenders aggressively shed blockers and penetrate the line of scrimmage. Surprisingly, in SEC Total Defense rankings, Kentucky is listed one spot higher than Tennessee
The loss of Melvin Lewis lessens the Cat DL. His absence was obvious in Starkville. Matt Elam will have his hands full and needs to show consistent improvement. As a unit, Kentucky’s defensive front will be tested against the UT power run game. Versus the pass, down linemen have to influence Dobbs. CJ Johnson has done so in the past, but UK needs more DL to impede Dobb’s vision while containing him to the pocket.
UT LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin is a dynamic playmaker. His performance is reflected in SEC rankings as the junior is listed at fith in tackles, 11th in QB sacks, and third in tackles for loss. He’s joined by fellow juniors Kenny Bynum and Darrin Kirkland. As a group, the UT LB corps is athletic, physical, and intense.
Josh Forrest is one spot behind Reeves-Maybin in two out of three SEC categories: tackles and QB sacks. Josh is a defensive mainstay but needs his fellow LB’s to step up their game. OLB Jason Hatcher is said to return from injury. Denzil Ware continues to develop and like most freshmen, is more acclimated in pass rush and run defense while learning to cover the pass.
Preseason All SEC CB Cam Sutton currently ranks eighth in Tennessee Football history in passes defended. Fellow CB Emmanuel Moseley leads the Vols in pass breakups. Safeties LaDarrell McNeil and Brian Randolph are aggressive by nature and physical in run support. While good, the Volunteers aren’t an elite secondary. In actuality, UK is rated one spot higher against the pass: UT 13th (248 ypg), UK 12th(232 ypg).
Kentucky’s secondary is in the process of a youth movement. CB Derrick Baity saw his first significant game action as fellow rookie Chris Westry continued to impress. Safety Mike Edwards replaced AJ Stamps and is now listed as “or” in the starting lineup. Being completely objective, Auburn exposed obvious weaknesses at cornerback opposite of Westry. During Monday’s Mark Stoops’ press conference, the UK coach mentioned investing thousands of snaps into players and at some point in time, the players have to produce or its time to move on. He didn’t specify players, but have to believe his secondary was at the top of the list.
Special Teams: Tennessee
Tennessee leads the nation and SEC in kickoff returns by averaging 36.9 yards per return. Evan Berry also leads the country in KO returns with an eye popping 38.7 yards per. Punter Trevor Daniel is fourth in the nation by averaging 47.1 yards per punt.
Austin MacGinnis’ return was a relief. Touchbacks are vital on Saturday.
What does all this mean?
Three years ago, Mark Stoops and Butch Jones inherited two totally different programs. In spite of woes, Tennessee had recruited at a high level prior to Jones taking over. His cupboard was somewhat full. Since, he’s continued to successfully recruit at a national level. Mark Stoops arrived to Lexington and was welcomed by one of the most athletically challenged rosters in college football. His talent cupboard three-fourths empty. Within 3 years of a 5 year rebuilding process, Stoops has recruited at a new level for Kentucky standards.
In the SEC Football arms race, historically Tennessee has out-spent Kentucky 100-1. Thankfully Mitch Barnhart and the university are righting decades of apathetic football budgeting. UK still has a great deal of catching up to do. Given all that; in 3 years on the job, Butch Jones is 15-17 while Mark Stoops has gone 11-20.
Tennessee is 3-4. Its losses came against: Oklahoma, Florida, Arkansas, and Alabama. The Vols are young and extremely talented. Kentucky will have to dictate tempo from warmups to the final buzzer. A read and react outing will result in a resounding loss. UT defense has given up big plays. Throughout 2015, UK has executed explosive pass and run plays. For UK to win, it has to execute an offensive track meet on turf, somehow create turnovers, and play four clean quarters. On a magical Lexington night, this game could top off an historical day in the Bluegrass.