Fresh off their second bye week, the Kentucky Wildcats (4-4, 2-4) will be back in action Saturday night as they host the hated Tennessee Volunteers (4-5, 2-3) at Kroger Field.
Both teams are looking to creep a win closer to securing a bowl bid with Kentucky needing to win two of their last four games and the Vols even more desperate as they can only afford one loss with three games left on their schedule.
Can the Cats get a big win over the rival Vols, or will Tennessee’s dominance over Kentucky continue? Here’s what you need to know for Saturday.
Getting Better And Better
Not many people expected Tennessee to have a chance at going bowling after the first two weeks of the season. The Vols opened the 2019 season with an embarrassing home loss to Georgia State, followed by another home loss to BYU. Since then, however, Tennessee has played much better. The Vols have won four of their last seven, including double-digit victories over Mississippi State and South Carolina’s teams that both defeated Kentucky. All three of their losses in that stretch came to teams ranked among the nation’s top 10 (Alabama, Georgia & Florida), meaning there haven’t been any let-downs since the BYU loss back on Sept. 14th. Thus, look for the Vols to keep building on that momentum when they come to Lexington Saturday.
A big reason for Tennessee’s struggles early on this season was their inability to stop the run. Georgia State ran for 215 yards against the Vols in week one, and Georgia ran for 241 on Oct. 5th. Lately, however, Tennessee has been able to shut down the run. In their win over Mississippi State on Oct. 12th, they held the same Bulldogs team that ran for 245 yards on the Wildcats on Sept. 22nd to just 117 rushing yards and held star running back Kylin Hill to just 11 yards on the day. Against South Carolina, on Oct. 26th, the Vols rush defense was even more impressive, holding the Gamecocks to just 77 rushing yards. On Sept. 29th, the Cocks ran for 212 yards against Kentucky. With the Vols rushing offense rolling against solid teams, the Wildcats will need to get creative with Lynn Bowden and generate a passing game to have success moving the ball.
Loaded With Weapons
While Tennessee has had their struggles at quarterback, they still are loaded with playmakers on offense. No weapon they have is more dangerous than senior wide receiver Jauan Jennings. Jennings, who Kentucky defensive coordinator compared to NFL Hall Of Fame inductee Terrell Owens earlier this week, has racked in 722 receiving yards so far this season with seven touchdowns grabs. He’s also run the ball nine times for an average of five yards per carry and a touchdown. The Vols also have another senior receiver in Marquez Callaway who has racked in 384 yards on just 18 catches this season, making his yards per catch average 21.3. In addition, Callaway as hauled in four touchdowns. Finally, junior running back Ty Chandler has averaged 5.1 yards per carry this season as he’s run for 569 yards and three touchdowns. With experience and talent, this group of playmakers is as good as anyone in the SEC, giving Kentucky a lot to watch out for.
It’s safe to say the Vols have owned the Wildcats the last 33 years. Since 1985 the Wildcats have only defeated the Vols twice (2011 & 2017). Last season, everyone expected the Wildcats who traveled to Neyland Stadium ranked 12th in the country to beat a bad Tennessee team. Instead, the Vols dominance continued beating the Wildcats 24-7 to extend Kentucky’s losing streak in Knoxville that started back in 1986. Two of the last four games between the two in Lexington, however, have gone the Cats way, including a victory in 2017 that a handful of this year’s roster was able to experience. With plenty of last year’s team having been apart of last year’s meltdown, expect revenge to be on their minds when they take the field Saturday.
More Sawyer Smith?
Lynn Bowden has been nothing short of incredible since taking over as quarterback of the Wildcats. He’s run for nearly 500 yards, earned two SEC offensive player of the week honors, and most importantly has won two games. While Bowden will likely get the start Saturday against the Vols, there is a chance Mark Stoops and Eddie Gran find some playing time for Sawyer Smith. Smith was terrific against Florida before suffering multiple injuries that derailed his season. After sitting out two games, Smith played in a limited role against Missouri completing his only passing attempt. With Tennessee having success against the run, it’s likely Smith will have more than just one throw in him this week. The Vols have allowed 230.5 passing yards per game through the air this season, which ranks 67th in the nation. Thus, look for the Cats to throw the ball some with Bowden but also use Smith’s big arm for some deep shots downfield.
Entering the season, many fans feared Kentucky’s young secondary would be the downfall of the team. Instead, they’ve been among the team’s biggest strengths. The Cats have not allowed 200 yards passing since Sept. 14 against Florida, held former SEC Champion quarterback Jake Fromm to 35 passing yards on Oct. 19, and held former Clemson star and current Missouri Tiger Kelly Bryant to just 130 yards with 74 of those coming on one play. All in all, Kentucky ranks 17th in the nation and third in the SEC (Missouri & Alabama) with just 180.5 passing yards allowed. With Tennessee having trouble throwing the ball this season, the Wildcats secondary should have another strong showing this weekend.
Saturday’s game should be highly competitive and could get a little chippy with emotions always running high during a rivalry game. With that said, Kentucky should come out using last year as motivation as they were embarrassed by several of the same Tennessee players who will come to Kroger Field this weekend. Expect the Wildcats to get their revenge by picking up a passing touchdown or two and winning the battle in the trenches.