While the Kentucky Wildcats Football program has made great strides under Mark Stoops, there’s still one monkey the UK head coach has not gotten off his back: beating the Tennessee Volunteers consistently.
Saturday Stoops and the Wildcats will have another crack at getting over the hump as they’ll travel south down I-75 to Neyland Stadium to take on the No. 18 Tennessee Volunteers.
Kentucky enters Saturday’s matchup 1-2 on the season after starting the year with losses at Auburn and at home to Ole Miss but were able to pick up a home win over Mississippi State last weekend. The Vols are 2-1 on the 2020 campaign as they defeated South Carolina and Missouri to kick off the season but then fell to No. 3 Georgia on the road last weekend.
The Wildcats have won just two games against Tennessee the last 33 years, with just one (2017) coming in the Stoops era. Neither of those victories came at Neyland Stadium or over a ranked Tennessee team like Kentucky will face Saturday as UK’s last win in Knoxville came in 1984 and their last victory over a ranked Volunteers team was in 1959.
Jarrett Guarantano the Kentucky killer
Tennessee senior Jarrett Guarantano has had a roller-coaster career. Guarantano has held the Vols starting quarterback for much of the past four seasons and ranks eighth all-time in program history in passing yards.
However, he’s only led the Vols to one winning season, is just 1-2 against Vanderbilt and is one of only two quarterbacks to lose to Kentucky in the last 33 years. Despite his loss to UK as a freshman in 2017, Guarantano always seems to save his best Football for the Wildcats.
Guarantano is 2-1 against the Cats with a remarkable 210.7 passer rating with 554 passing yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. Last season, the New Jersey native came off the bench in the second half and went 7-8 with 115 yards and two touchdown passes to lead the Vols to a comeback victory in Lexington.
Thus, it’s safe to call Guarantano a Kentucky killer.
“The Tennessee Valley Authority”
Last year, Kentucky’s brilliant offensive line earned them the nickname “The Big Blue Wall.” This year, it’s Tennessee’s offensive line that has dominated and has earned a nickname: “The Tennessee Valley Authority.”
The Vols offensive line features two potential first-round draft picks for 2021 in Trey Smith and Cade Mays, former four-star recruits Jerome Carvin and Brandon Kennedy and senior center Riley Locklear.
Tennessee’s line has created holes for running backs Ty Chandler and Eric Gray, who both rank among the top 12 rushers in the SEC as Chandler has rushed for 187 yards and a score while Gray has run for 170 yards and two scores.
Pruitt the savior?
Two games into the 2019 season, Tennessee fans were ready to fire head coach Jeremy Pruitt. After a 5-7 2018 season in his first year as head coach, Pruitt’s Vols kicked off 2019 with home losses to Georgia State and BYU. Instead of firing their coach, however, Athletic Director Phillip Fulmer stayed patient and that appears to be paying off.
The Vols went on to go 8-3 in their final 11 games and are off to a 2-1 start this season, putting Pruitt at 10-3 since Tennessee’s 0-2 start last season. As a result, Fulmer extended Pruitt through the 2025 season. Not only are the Vols performing better on the field, but they’re also recruiting at a high level.
Their 2021 class currently ranks among the top 10 in the nation after they finished top 20 in 2020. It seems after years of struggles under Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley, Jim Chaney and Butch Jones; it appears the Vols have their coach that is ready to turn the program back into an SEC title contender.
What offense will show up?
The best way to describe Kentucky’s offense’s start to the 2020 season would be inconsistent. Week 1 against Auburn, the Cats outgained the Tigers but turned the ball over three times and scored just 13 points in a losing effort. The following week, UK ran for 408 yards and put up 41 points on Ole Miss despite a losing effort. Then in Week 3, the offense totaled just 158 yards of offense and was bailed out by a terrific defensive performance.
In order to win Saturday, the Wildcats will need the Terry Wilson of Week 2 under center. Wilson dominated the Rebels 13 days ago as he completed 14-18 of his passes for 151 yards and ran for 129 yards and three scores. In Week 3 against Mississippi State, however, he struggled throwing just 8-20 for 73 yards while rushing for 50 yards.
Wilson hasn’t gotten much help from his receivers as outside of Josh Ali, no receiver on the UK roster has accumulated 100 yards. If the Cats can find a second reliable receiver and get Week 2 Wilson, they should have a great chance to win. If not, they’re in deep trouble.
What defense will show up?
Like the offense, Kentucky’s defense has been extremely inconsistent so far this season. Brad White’s defense had an up and down performance in their Week 1 loss to Auburn, allowed 459 yards and 42 points to Ole Miss in Week 2, but last week forced six turnovers and did not allow Mississippi State’s offense to score.
The key to for UK’s defense will be continuing to force turnovers. The Cats did not force a turnover in their losses to Auburn and Ole Miss but grabbed six interceptions against Mississippi State. While it’s impossible to ask for another six interception performance, forcing a turnover or two will be key to victory.
They’ll also need another strong performance out of their secondary, which struggled the first two weeks but clamped down last week. Facing Guarantano and preventing contested catches has been a struggle for UK in recent matchups against the Vols, which means a big-game from the pass defense will be a key to victory Saturday.
Rose or Rodriguez?
Eddie Gran has a decision to make at running back. A.J. Rose has been UK’s primary back since Benny Snell departed for the NFL but has had a rough start to the 2020 season. Rose celebrated a would-be 75-yard touchdown too early against Ole Miss and was stopped three-yards short of the end zone and later in the drive fumbled, resulting in a turnover.
He then fumbled again in Kentucky’s win over Mississippi State last week, meaning he’s fumbled in four of his last seven games dating back to last year.
This could force Gran to promote Chris Rodriguez to the starting running back role. The redshirt sophomore has run for 184 yards and three scores while averaging 5.6 yards per carry.
With Kavoisey Smoke recovering from a broken rib, Rose and Rodriguez will continue to get the bulk of the carries while redshirt freshman Travis Tisdale and true freshman JuTahn McClain may also get carries.
Given Kentucky’s poor track record against Tennessee, it’s hard to imagine they will be able to pull off the upset against a ranked Vols team in Knoxville. If UK’s defense is able to force some turnovers and the offense can put together some long scoring drives, they’ll have a chance but expect the Vols to be a little too much for Kentucky to handle.