Staff predictions, week four: Kentucky
John Dunn: (Managing Editor/Founder/Host)
Rachel Ward: (Senior Staff Writer)
Anthony Ryan Cloud: (Senior Staff Writer)
Trevor Morris: (Junior Staff Writer)
The Tennessee Volunteers are back at home this week, reeling from a second half collapse against the (3) Georgia Bulldogs last week. Behind four second half turnovers and a plethora of penalties, the Vols found themselves "playing behind the eight ball" in Athens. Can Tennessee get back on track against the Wildcats in what was formerly known as the "Battle of the Beer Barrel?"
John Dunn: This rivalry has always been an extremely important one to me. Growing up in East Tennessee, I lived right on the Kentucky-Tennessee border in Claiborne County, Tennessee. I had friends, family and acquaintances that dawned the blue. Being able to report from the sidelines for the 2018 (11) Kentucky vs. Tennessee game is still to this day my favorite sports memory. In my youth, I never had to endure a Kentucky victory over Tennessee. It wasn't until 2011 when Derek Dooley led the Vols onto the field in Neyland Stadium against a bewildered Wildcats squad who didn't even have a true quarterback under center that I felt that feeling for the first time in my life.
Since then, the series has become much more competitive. Kentucky emerged victorious for the second time in five years after defeating Tennessee 29-26 in Lexington in 2016, marking more wins for the Wildcats in five years than what they had for the prior 30 years combined. Last year's game went down to the wire, and came down to Tennessee holding Kentucky out of the end zone on a goal line stand to secure a 17-13 victory in Lexington. This season, the Wildcats travel to Knoxville, a place where they haven't been very successful in the past. Kentucky hasn't defeated the Volunteers in Neyland Stadium since 1984, a game in which they won 17-12.
The Wildcats' strength is their massive/experienced offensive line. There are very few teams in the nation that can claim to have a better offensive line that the Vols, (even though they didn't have a good showing against the Dawgs) however, Kentucky is one of those teams. Along with a multitude of experienced titans in the trenches, the Wildcats return a bevy of talent on the defensive side of the ball.
Kentucky's greatest weakness right now is their quarterback play. Yet again, Terry Wilson has shown inconsistencies through the air, causing the Wildcats' defense to be somewhat anemic. Kentucky is a run-heavy team, and will attempt to get an early lead and chew the clock as much as possible.
I fully expect this game to be closer than most people anticipate. People have become so used to Tennessee dominating Kentucky that they fail to realize the improvement that has happened in Lexington. If the Wildcats had a passing game, they would be 3-0 right now, and be looking like one of the favorites in the East. They have played better than their record indicates, and the program is definitely headed in an upward trajectory.
With all of that being said, I feel like Tennessee matches up very well with Kentucky. With the one-dimensional nature of the Wildcat offense, the Vols may not have to worry too much through the air on Saturday. Having a trio of veteran defensive backs: Bryce Thompson, Alontae Taylor, and Shawn Shamburger on the defensive end will help contain Kentucky's passing offense as well, forcing them to beat Tennessee on the ground. The Vols' linebacking core is an imposing force in rush-defense. They have already proven so with multiple goal line/fourth down stands on defense this year.
If the Vols can put the Dawgs behind them, and focus on Kentucky, history should have no problem repeating itself. I expect Jarrett Guarantano to step up and play a very efficient game after coughing the ball up four times in the second half against Georgia. Eric Gray and Ty Chandler will continue to create space and accumulate yardage in the running game, while opening up the likes of Brandon Johnson, Josh Palmer, Jalin Hyatt , and Co.
Prediction: Tennessee - 35 | Kentucky - 24
Rachel Ward: The Vols had a second half come-from-behind victory in the third quarter last season to notch a win against the Wildcats, 17-13 in Lexington. Kentucky lost their dual-threat star in wide receiver/quarterback Lynn Bowden—a loss with substantial impact. However, the Wildcats return eight offensive starters and seven defensive starters.
Terry Wilson will be leading the Wildcats this season. Wilson played the entirety of the 2018 season, and started the 2019 season, before he got injured. His experience will help, and having skilled receiver Josh Ali to look for in and out of the pocket help as well. Linebackers: Jamar Watson and Chris Oats have the ability to apply pressure to the Vols’ offense, but I think the Tennessee has what it takes to notch their third consecutive win in as many years.
Prediction: Tennessee - 28 | Kentucky - 20
Anthony Ryan Cloud: It was a one-step forward, two steps back approach for Tennessee Saturday against Georgia. While the Vols' defense held on as long as they could, the offense couldn’t get anything going – through the air or on the ground. I don’t believe that will be the case against Kentucky.
The Wildcats’ No. 8 rush defense ranking can be misleading, considering their last opponent, (Miss. State), only rushed the ball 14-times during the game. Look for Eric Gray and Ty Chandler to find opportunities behind a resurgent effort from the Vols’ front five. This should also be a chance for Jarrett Guarantano to rebound after a lackluster performance against the Bulldogs.
Look for the Vols' defense to shutdown Terry Wilson through the air with most of Kentucky’s production likely to come on bigger plays from the Wildcat backfield.
Prediction: Tennessee - 42 | Kentucky - 14
Trevor Morris: This is a tricky sequence of games for the Volunteers. After losing to Georgia, they have to come back and play a good Kentucky team. Kentucky is led by returning QB Terry Wilson and a trio of Running Backs that combined for 1,975 yards last season. The offensive line is also very good for Kentucky this year, despite losing a few starters.
Kentucky is going to be a team that grinds the run game and uses play action passes for big plays. This is not a favorable game for the Volunteer’s defense, and it doesn’t get much better for the Tennessee offense. Kentucky returns a ton of starters, with the exception of the defensive line, and had an amazing signing class that includes five-star Justin Rogers.
The Wildcats' biggest weakness is Mark Stoops as a coach, if they don’t contend for the East this season. This team is where Tennessee will be next year and will prove it in this game.
Prediction: Kentucky - 24 | Tennessee - 20