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AN UNFORESEEN CHALLENGE: Why the Kentucky game could prove to be the most important game of the year

By: Nate Livesay

Junior Staff Writer

The All Vol Call in Show

20231025

Photo | The Daily Beacon

While frustration is understandable for Vol fans after a second half collapse caused the Vols to fall to Alabama 34-20, the reasons for optimism are clear if you want to see them. Despite going into the game as more than a touchdown underdog after losing their last three games in Tuscaloosa by an average margin of 29 points, the Vols had a chance to win this game. While the Vols are rebuilding their roster under 3rd year coach Josh Heupel, Alabama has one of the nations most talented rosters evidenced by the fact it sits atop the Blue-Chip Ratio with 88% of their roster being 4 or 5 star recruits and the second half outcome made this evident.

The first half went about as well as the Vols could have hoped. The offense was efficient on the ground and Joe Milton threw two touchdown passes while the defense harassed Alabama into two turnovers behind dominant edge rusher James Pierce. The Vols led 20-7 and only struggles in the red zone prevented the lead from being even larger. Tennessee's red zone offense has to improve moving forward as it will likely be crucial in the remaining SEC match ups. Unfortunately, all the Vols momentum disappeared in the locker room as the second half started poorly and got worse. Alabama found the end zone in only two plays on its first drive and scored on every possession until the game was no longer in doubt. The Vols offense got nothing done and a strip sack of Joe Milton returned for an Alabama touchdown was the final nail in the coffin.

The Vols first half performance on the road was encouraging. The game plan was sound and had Alabama on their heels. The offense executed as well as it had all season outside of the red zone and the defense continued to cause havoc. It showed that the Vols are capable of winning any game left on their schedule; however the second half collapse made it clear that no road game will be easy for this group. While some folks want to make all losses about Joe Milton’s shortcomings or Josh Heupel’s decision making, you have to give some credit to the players and coaches on the other team as history says most SEC games are won by the team with the most talent on the roster.

Turning eyes toward Kentucky, this is the season's most important game. Before the Vols can challenge Alabama and Georgia for the top of the SEC they have to prove that they are firmly back ahead of the rest of the SEC East in the present and not just by program history. They’ve already dispatched South Carolina and now they face a Kentucky team that will be well rested coming off a bye week and motivated by two consecutive losses to Tennessee under Josh Heupel. The Vols defeated Kentucky 45-42 in Lexington in 2021 and embarrassed the Wildcats 44-6 in Neyland last season.

While Tennessee has dominated Kentucky offensively in the past two games this game will be decided in the trenches. Both teams rank near the top of the SEC in rushing defense and rushing offense. It will be a strength on strength match up there. The team that can run the ball consistently and give their quarterback time to throw the ball will be the team that comes out on top in this game. If Tennessee can bottle up Ray Davis and force Devin Leary to try to make plays with his arm that is the recipe for success in Lexington Leary has struggled in SEC play completing less than 50% of his passes and has thrown multiple interceptions in 2 of 4 SEC contests.

Kentucky hasn’t allowed many sacks but the SEC teams they have faced so far are at the bottom of the SEC in sacks while Tennessee’s 28 sacks place them 1 off the lead in the conference. If the Vols can force Kentucky into obvious passing situations it should be able to get pressure on Leary and force turnovers that will give the Vol offense a short field. By the same token if Tennessee is able to create running room for Jaylen Wright, Jabari Small and Dylan Sampson it will force Kentucky to commit more resources to stopping the run and leave a pass defense that is 12th in the SEC vulnerable to attack.

If Tennessee is able to establish the run expect Joe Milton and the Vol wide receivers to be able to connect on a couple of explosive pass plays. A win in Lexington likely answers questions about Tennessee’s ability to play well on the road and what happens at quarterback for the rest of the season. Another 10 win regular season is still on the table and November match ups with Missouri and Georgia are huge games. A loss? Then things get really dicey. The clamor for 5 star back up quarterback Nico Iamaleava will become much much louder and Josh Heupel will legitimately face a decision headed into the November 4th home game against Uconn.

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