We’re headed into week nine for college football and this week’s Tennessee vs. Kentucky showdown is an orange vs. blue battle of the checkerboards. On Saturday, Neyland Stadium will host the Wildcats as the No.3 Vols continue blazing a path to 8-0 and the No.19 Wildcats look to upset the home team. Twitter is packed with smack talking fans on both sides of the matchup, and ESPN will be on hand to broadcast the game this Halloween weekend. The fun kicks off in Neyland Stadium at 7:00 PM EST on October 29.
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Tennessee won big over UT Martin during last week’s homecoming game in Knoxville. UT Martin was the Vols’ final non-conference game of the season.
Tennessee is 7-0 and has beaten four ranked opponents so far: Pittsburgh (17), Florida (20), LSU (25), and Alabama (3, Roll Vols).
Kentucky is 5-2 and was ranked in the top ten after a 4-0 start to the season, though they’ve fallen after losing their last two games, to Ole Miss and South Carolina.
Based on the two teams’ styles of play, Tennessee vs. Kentucky might shape up to be another good matchup after all!
Tennessee vs. Kentucky: Where the Vols Stand Right Now
This is Coach Heupel’s second season as head coach for the Vols. He inherited a team with a three win season in 2020 and has shown exponential growth with the program since then. This is the closest it’s been to really being Tennessee’s year in a long time. That doesn’t mean I think they’re going to finish the regular season undefeated, only that they’ve been a much tougher opponent than anticipated in the pre-season and have outplayed my personal expectations so far.
The tremendous progress this team has shown with Coach Heupel should be attributed, in part, to the veteran status of several players including senior standout Ramel Keyton. After last week’s win against the Skyhawks, Keyton remarked on the work the team is putting in this year as compared to the 2018 and 2019 seasons saying, “Everybody’s putting in their extra work. You can see it all coming together on both sides of the ball, so that’s a good thing. Everybody, they don’t want to feel how they felt back then, so it gives us an extra chip and we’re just rolling with it.”
He’s absolutely right. Say what you will about Tennessee’s issues on defense and in the secondary, you can see it all coming together for the team as a whole. The hard work has been paying off and it’s been a joy for the fanbase just as it has to the players and coaching staff.
Tennessee has played and won two rivalry games, most notably upsetting Alabama to end the Tide’s 15 year winning streak just two weeks ago. That was a huge victory and it’s been wondered aloud in my circle of Vol friends whether or not they’ll have gotten too big an ego boost from that game to adequately prepare for the Tennessee vs. Kentucky showdown this weekend. But, I don’t think that will be the case.
Related Article: Dark Mode Activated for Tennessee vs. Kentucky
Tennessee vs. Kentucky: What To Expect
At this point in the season it is tempting to talk a lot of trash to everyone left on the schedule but even Kentucky isn’t to be underestimated. They’re beatable but this game could get interesting because this one is going to be a showcase for different styles of play.
Kentucky is one of the slowest-playing FBS teams around. A slow playing offense helmed by one of the top NFL draft prospects at QB, Will Levis, will test the Tennessee defense. Levis is currently ranked fourth in the SEC in passing and second in passer rating and yards per attempt. So far, Levis has thrown five interceptions and, with two fumbles and a safety, contributed to Kentucky’s loss to Ole Miss in a pretty significant way.
Levis is throwing to Chris Rodriguez Jr. who has racked up 395 yards and three touchdowns so far. Kentucky ranks second in the SEC in scoring defense and total defense, and they haven’t allowed more than 24 points in a game so far.
However. Kentucky hasn’t faced the fastest offense in the country so far, either. Led by QB Hendon Hooker, the Vols offense is No.1 in the country in scoring and total offense. Hooker leads the SEC in passer rating and total offense and he leads the FBS in yards per attempt. He’s thrown just one interception this season and has top-tier talent in Jalin Hyatt, Cedric Tillman, and Bru McCoy.
The breakout player of the season, Jalin Hyatt is leading the SEC in receiving, leading the FBS with 12 touchdown catches, and is ranked fifth nationally in receiving. And though he’s been out for injury, the return of Cedric Tillman will reunite a dynamic duo in Tillman and Hooker. Assuming Tillman is back for Tennessee vs. Kentucky, that would spell t-r-o-u-b-l-e for the Wildcats’ defense.
Kentucky’s Offensive Coordinator Rich Scangarello said earlier this week, “We’re not a team that’s going to score 50 points a game.” This implies that the Wildcats’ strategy this week is to slow down the game and require running the ball. Say what you will about Tennessee’s pass defense, but their run defense is No.6 in the nation so this would be an odd strategy against an elite level run defense like the Vols.
The Wildcats aren’t a bad team, in fact they might even be a good team with a good coach. The Vols should respect that and prepare for them in the same way they prepared for Florida, LSU, and Alabama. But the Vols are a better team with, quite possibly, a better coach. They’re playing with a chip on their big orange shoulder and they’re well positioned to close out Saturday 8-0 ahead of next week’s trip to Athens.
Tennessee vs. Kentucky: Final Thoughts
This Halloween weekend will be a scary good time as it’s the first ranked Tennessee vs. Kentucky matchup since 1951. Two ranked teams with two wildly different styles of play will meet under the bright lights of Neyland Stadium in front of a packed house.
There are some fans wondering, maybe worrying, about whether or not the Vols’ defense and uncertain secondary can handle Kentucky’s offense. I believe they can especially since, despite their flaws, they hung with Alabama and won out in the end. I think the Tennessee vs. Kentucky matchup will be made easier for the Vols because of Kentucky’s slow style of play.
The counter to the question above would be, can the Wildcats defense stop the Vols offense? No, probably not. They’ll come ready and be as prepared as anyone can be, but the speed of this offense has proven itself to be difficult to defend. The Vols won’t slow themselves down, and Kentucky won’t be able to hang with them.
Finally, can the Wildcats outscore the Vols? Not if you ask their OC; they aren’t a team that is going to score 50 points in a game. The Vols are averaging 50.1.
Tennessee is the double-digit favorite in this game at a spread of -12.5, per FanDuel Sportsbook. Personally, I’ll bet on the power of dark mode. Happy Halloween, Vol Nation!
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