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Scouting Report: Tennessee Volunteers

(Photo: © Ed Zurga | Getty Images)

(Photo: © Ed Zurga | Getty Images)

Kentucky got off the mat last weekend with a big time home victory over Mississippi State and now they are set to make their second road trip of the 2020 season. Awaiting them in Knoxville will be Tennessee as the Wildcats and Volunteers are set to go at it on the gridrion for the 116th time. We all know this has been a one-sided rivalry and the Vols have won 7 of the last 8 meetings since UK broke the dreaded streak in 2011 and have continued to torture many Kentucky football supporters.

In recent years, both programs have found themselves on similar footing and each is trying to climb the ladder in the SEC East so they can compete with Florida and Georgia for a division title. The rosters and team makeup are very similar while UK has gotten more wins recently, but doesn’t have the head-to-head success against Tennessee. This is a big game for the Kentucky football program and a victory in Neyland Stadium could help erase all of the bad feelings created with the 0-2 start.

Nuts and Bolts

Tennessee has a .695 all-time winning percentage, 13 SEC titles and claims six national championships. In 1998, Phil Fulmer and the Vols ran the table to become the first ever BCS national champion as the alum started his head coaching career at the alma mater with a 67-11 record and had one of the premier programs in all of college football. Things have not gone well on Rocky Top since.

In the two-plus decades since Fulmer lifted that crystal ball, the Vols have just two top-10 finishes and the most recent occurred in 2001. Fulmer was fired at the end of the 2008 season while Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley and Butch Jones combined to go 56-56 for a decade with one winless SEC campaign and just two top 25 finishes. After another coaching firing, the Vols would end up having to dismiss their athletic director and get Fulmer back home. That led to the Vols hiring Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt who came to Knoxville with Saban ideas while leaning on his boss for guidance on how to build a football team.

After a bad first season under Pruitt, Tennessee made some major coaching staff changes bringing in Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney to call plays and paying him $1.7 million this season. On defense, they brought in NFL assistant Derrick Ansley to call plays and are paying him $1 million. They also brought famous alum Tee Martin back home and after a 6-11 start by Pruitt, we are starting to see that coaching star power pay off.

The Vols are 8-1 in their last nine games with with six of those games being SEC victories. They are doing it with a power run game supported by some play-action passing led by a beefy offensive line. The defense has a ton of size and length up front with big, athletic linebackers and hard-hitting players in the secondary. It’s the same blueprint that Fulmer utilized at Tennessee and right now the Vol faithful appear to be very content. After their first loss in nearly a full calendar year last week against Georgia, now we’ll start to see just how good of a head coach Pruitt is.

This will be the 116th meeting between the two programs and Tennessee owns a commanding 81-25-9 series lead highlighted by that very long 26-game winning streak from 1985 until 2010. Since that UK victory in 2011, Tennessee is 7-1 against Kentucky and the Wildcats have not won in Neyland Stadium since 1984. This venue is the only division site UK has not won a road game at since 2009. That needs to change.

Out in the desert, Tennessee is 5.5 point favorite with a total of 46. That’s a projected final score around 25.5-20. Tennessee is 1-1-1 ATS this season while Kentucky is 1-2. In the last 10 meetings between the two programs, Tennessee is 8-2 straight up and has covered a bunch of times. Pruitt has pulled off an upset win in both meetings while Mark Stoops has yet to cover a spread in this series sitting on an 0-6-1 record. UK hasn’t come within single digits of Tennessee in Knoxville since 2006.

Offensive Breakdown

After three games to begin the season, Tennessee ranks just 12th in yards per play offense in the SEC, but they come in at 7th in scoring offense thanks to being second in red zone touchdown rate. The Vols are scoring 5.21 points per scoring opportunity and if stretched over a full season that would rank near the top-10 nationally. Tennessee is middle of the road in yards per carry and yards per pass, but they are elite when presented the chance to put points on the board.

Under second year play-caller Jim Chaney, this is a group that wants to lean on its talented offensive line and make things easy for its redshirt senior quarterback who is an excellent vertical passer. Both left guard Trey Smith (No. 73) and right tackle Cade Mays (No. 68) are two of the best individual offensive line players in college football. Each will hear their name called early in the 2021 NFL Draft. Alabama grad transfer Brandon Kennedy (No. 55)  is in his sixth year and starts at center while both five-star true sophomores Wanya Morris (No. 64) and Darnell Wright (No. 72) will see time at tackle. Their offensive line has all of the team’s star power and occasionally they will bring six or seven out at a time when they go with some jumbo packages. This is a really good group and Smith is an absolute force.

Due to the skill and size of the line, Chaney wants to establish the run. Ty Chandler (No. 8) and Eric Gray (No. 3) platoon at the tailback position and the duo is averaging 25.33 rushes per game. These carries account for 37.62% of the team’s snaps and everything they do starts with this twosome. The pair of Tennessee natives and former blue-chip recruits haven’t been super successful this season.

Gray seems to have the most potential, but he has a success rate of just 30.56% and 25% of his rushes end in no gain or for a loss. Chandler has been more efficient with a 46.15% success rate and less bad plays, but the big play pop has not been there. They figure to have a challenge going up against a Kentucky defense that is allowing just a 35.42% success rate against opposing running backs with only 6.25% of attempts going for longer than 10 yards. However, they have combined for 16 receptions and are threats to catch the ball out of the backfield.

In the pass game, Jarrett Guarantano (No. 2) can struggle with ball security (four fumbles) and the intermediate plays aren’t great (59.94% completion percentage the last two years) but man can he throw a beautiful deep ball. He won’t beat you on a down-to-down basis like Kentucky saw against Matt Corral, but the Vols are a threat at any time to let it rip deep and play the jump ball game.

At wide receiver, Josh Palmer (No. 5) is Guarantano’s top target and the Canadian is one of the best outside wide receivers in the SEC this season. The senior has averaged nearly 16 yards per catch in his career and he excels in isolation situations. UK has struggled with big iso wideouts this season and Palmer will be another tough challenge for both Brandin Echols and Kelvin Joseph. Expect plenty of targets to go Palmer’s way and he’s been very successful this season.

After him, however, the Vols have their own wideout questions. They are still looking for a reliable No. 2 option with Brandon Johnson (No. 7) emerging with nine receptions early and USC grad transfer Velus Jones Jr. (No. 1) is getting plenty of snaps. Sophomore Ramel Keyton (No. 80) was a big time recruit in the class of 2019 and the staff is trying to develop him into another deep outside threat without much success so far. Tennessee has thrown out true freshman Jalin Hyatt (No. 11) every once in awhile as a gadget player for the offense. Don’t be surprised if you see him in wildcat, jet sweeps, reverses, quick screens.

Despite Guarantano’s experience and the talent of the offensive line, pass protection has been an issue for this group. The Vols rank dead last in the SEC in sack rate allowed (9%). Passing downs can be an issue and that’s where they were exposed last week against Georgia.

Defensive Breakdown

After finishing 19th in defensive efficiency last year under first year coordinator Derrick Ansley, expectations were high for the Vols with eight returning starters. Through 12 quarters, the Vols rank fifth in the SEC in yards per play allowed, seventh in scoring and fifth in yards per carry allowed. They haven’t been great, but they are rock solid.

Jeremy Pruitt and Ansley run a 3-4 scheme that is similar to what Kentucky uses and what this UK offense saw against both Auburn and Ole Miss. The Vols are big on the line of scrimmage with each of the players in the three-down rotation checking in at 290 pounds or above. This is a unit that doesn’t make a lot of plays (only 0.5 non-sack tackles for loss from the rotation) but they eat up space and blocks so the four linebackers can make play clean and downhill.

Against the three starting tailbacks they have faced, Tennessee is allowing these backs to have a 40.74% success rate, but they just do not give up chunks. They have only allowed four rushes over 10 yards from this group and produce a ton of no gain or negative plays with a 20.37% stuff rate. They get it done on the ground. However, the depth of Georgia did cause them some issues and true freshman Kendall Milton sliced them for 56 yards on eight carries. He has a very similar running style to Chris Rodriguez Jr.

At the second level is where the teeth of their defense is and they are led by sophomore Henry To’o To’o (No. 11) who has 23 tackles and 3 non-sack tackles plus a pick-six this year after recording 72 tackles and 4.5 non-sack tackles for loss as a true freshman. He’s an absolute dude who has All-SEC and All-American potential on top of being a top notch 2022 NFL Draft prospect.

In his senior season, Deandre Johnson (No. 13) has developed into one of the SEC’s finest pass rushers from his hybrid OLB/DE spot and true freshman Tyler Baron (No. 9) is playing well off the bench. You may remember that name as that was a recruitment that came down to the wire with Tennessee edging out Kentucky.

On pass defense, the Vols have a solid pass rush as long as Johnson is in the lineup but the coverage has some holes. Tennessee is giving up completions at a 60.4% clip with opponents putting up over eight yards per attempt. Foes have just a 42.53% success rate in the passing game, but 64.86% of the completions allowed are going for at least 15 yards. Can UK take advantage of a leaky pass defense?

Their third down defense isn’t great, but they have been able to get stingy when in the red zone. Overall opponents are scoring just 4.06 points per scoring opportunity and limiting Missouri to just 12 points on five opportunities is the biggest reason that home victory turned into a blowout.

Special Teams Breakdown

Brent Cimaglia (No. 42) entered this season as a preseason first-team All-SEC selection who had made 75% of his career attempts going into 2020 without a missed PAT. However, Cimaglia has missed two of his three attempts to start the season and that’s not great. But the data tells us this is one of the best kickers in the SEC.

At punter, Paxton Brooks (No. 37) is back and he also serves as the kickoff specialist with a career 80% touchback rate. Kentucky was able to block a punt by Brooks last season, but he simply does not allow returns and has been rock solid to start the season.

In the return department, the Vols prefer to let the ball bounce or fair catch on punts. There will be a big opportunity for Max Duffy to pickup a ton of hidden yardage with all of his unique deliveries. Velus Jones Jr. ranks second in the SEC in kick return average so UK’s kickoff team must be careful.

Keys to Victory

  • We’ve heard Mark Stoops say it a ton of times, but the team that wins the rushing battle in the SEC usually comes out the winner. While that stat can be flawed, within this matchup it could make a lot of sense. Both the Wildcats and Volunteers want to establish the run first and beat up their opponents at the point of attack. Whoever is able to gain an edge in this battle will have the best shot at victory. UK has the better chance at success due to the quarterback run element and if they are not able to get the ground game going it could be another long afternoon at Neyland Stadium.
  • When you break down Tennessee’s offense closely, you see that Jarrett Guarantano has had some success but the big plays haven’t been all that frequent. However, when the Vols go deep, it is with their big stick. They are looking to hit on a couple vertical shot plays per game and will let it rip in isolation situations. UK has really been stung by competitive 50/50 catches recently in this series and they need to eliminate those as best as possible. The ball is going to Josh Palmer and they must find a way to stop it.
  • On the other side, Tennessee’s pass defense does have some holes and if you are able to protect completions will be there. The Vols have specifically been bad in eliminating the big play and most of the damage has been done across the middle. Will Eddie Gran be able to scheme something up with his backs and tight ends to take advantage? The Vols don’t give up big runs on the ground so the explosive plays must come in the pass game.
  • When Tennessee hosted Missouri a few weeks ago, the game was evenly played in all but a few situations. The Vols were able to score 35 points on 6 scoring opportunities while the Tigers only mustered 12 points in 5 opportunities. Specifically, Tennessee’s offense has been spectacular at finishing drives and that’s even with two missed field goals. Kentucky must prove last week was not a fluke and get some timely stops when Tennessee’s offense is approaching the endzone.
  • Against Auburn, Kentucky entered the fourth quarter down just two points but they could never really put any game pressure on the home team. Terry Wilson’s fumble followed by a turnover on downs turned a close game into a blowout very quickly. The early season adversity should help Kentucky if this one is close as the final quarter winds down. Meanwhile, the Vols were handed a win by South Carolina and Indiana in their last two close games. Stay in it and I think UK will have a great chance to go win the game in the fourth quarter.

Article written by Adam Luckett

Twitter: @AdamLuckettKSR