Tennessee vs Kentucky: Gameday Preview
The Vols square off inside Neyland Stadium today against a traditional foe, but in roles that are far from what is normal in the game’s history. The Kentucky Wildcats come calling in Knoxville this afternoon, and they show up as the number eleven team in the nation. The Wildcats have not won in Neyland since the 1984 season and have not been favored in Knoxville since the 1950’s. Mark Stoops’s team has already ended a set of streaks this season with an early win over Florida in the Swamp, and they are favored in today’s contest. A loss last week against Georgia means that the Cats saw their SEC East Title hopes come to an end, but the chance to finally beat Tennessee in Knoxville and create a winning streak against the border rivals that have dominated them for so long means that this is still a big game for the squad in blue. Tennessee, on the other hand, is fighting to get themselves bowl eligible, needing two wins in their final three games. A win today at home would be huge for the Vols’ post-season hopes, not to mention, in a season where the Vols so often hear about streaks, it would be nice to continue one that is actually beneficial for Tennessee. If Tennessee wants to protect home turf against their SEC East foes from Lexington and net their second upset win against a Top 25 team in SEC play this season, they have a few key areas to focus on.
There is no easy or polite way to say this, Tennessee’s offensive line is bad. Really bad. And against the Charlotte 49ers last weekend, a team that it should be noted has the sixth ranked run defense in America, the Vol line was abysmal. Some of the problems can be attributed to injuries, some to young players being forced into the lineup too soon, and some falls to learning a new scheme. Even with that in mind, last week’s effort up front was possibly the worst a Tennessee offensive line has played in my memory. It is one thing to line up across from an opponent and to have them be better than you, be that faster, stronger, or more technically sound. It is one thing to have an opponent out scheme you, a defensive coordinator putting his players in a situation to beat an offensive play call, exploit tendencies, or take advantage of individual weaknesses. It is another for one side to just line up and whip the other one for sixty solid minutes. That final scenario, with liberal additions of the first two, is what Tennessee endured last week against Charlotte. When Tennessee attempted to run the ball, on simple, fundamental, straight ahead runs, Charlotte defenders made it into the Volunteer backfield without being touched. This was not an isolated incident, nor was it one player making a mistake or making a play. Throughout the game, the Vols had multiple members of the line completely whiff on block after block, and most of Charlotte’s front seven benefitted from being untouched to make a tackle for loss.
There is no simplifying of plays like that for Tennessee up front. At some point, as an offensive lineman in the run game, you must fire out of your stance and hit the man across from you. If he gets off the block or beats you, that’s one thing. If a defender from another level shoots a gap while you are occupied and makes a play, that is another. But last week the Vols were not even contacting the lineman a few inches away from them. If the Volunteers are to have any chance of upsetting the Wildcats, the offensive line must show dramatic improvement from a week ago. Kentucky comes into Neyland with one of the stingiest defenses in the country, and the SEC sack leader in Josh Allen. Against an offensive line that has allowed a staggering number of hits on their quarterback, Allen must be licking his chops. Tennessee is not going to stop Allen. He is going to sack Jarrett Guarantano at least once or twice today, and he will likely hit him several more times. This Kentucky defense is going to make quite a few tackles in the backfield today. At this point in the season, both Tennessee and Kentucky have put their identities on tape, and that isn’t going to suddenly change this afternoon. The Vols will struggle to keep their quarterback from taking big hits, and to open holes for their running backs. Still, an effort more in line with what came against Auburn or South Carolina, not good games by the offensive line, mind you, but better, could see Tennessee give Guarantano enough time to take some shots deep and open lanes for explosive backs to gash the Wildcats. This matchup is the single most important one to see on the field today. If Tennessee’s line comes out and plays like a decent Power Five unit, the Vols have a shot to beat Kentucky. If they put out another effort more akin to last week, Kentucky will win, likely handily, and the Vols may have some injuries to deal with.
There are two other trends that Tennessee must buck from this season, besides poor play from the line, if they want to upset Kentucky. The first involves the first quarter. The only thing that has been worse than Tennessee’s offensive line play this season has been the team’s play in the first quarter of games. It has been maddening to watch, but week after week, the Vols seem to come out and look lost in first period of games. Through most of the season, Tennessee seems to settle in and play better down the stretch but struggles to overcome the giant holes they dig themselves early. Kentucky is the definition of a team that you can’t afford to spot a big lead to. The Cats have a stellar running back in Benny Snell that can take a game over, break it open, and grind down the clock while he does it. Couple that with a defense that plays well and has a superb pass rusher that can wreak all kinds of havoc if he is permitted to just pin his ears back and rush the quarterback, and you have a recipe for a team that can turn another bad first quarter into yet another SEC loss.
Another troubling trend for these Vols has been the fact that their best efforts have come away from Neyland Stadium. While Tennessee has won some games in Knoxville this season, they have also played all their worst games at home this year. The Vols underwhelmed against ETSU and UTEP, looked bad against Charlotte, and had terrible games against Florida and Alabama. The Vols upset Auburn on the Plains in their best effort of the season, but Tennessee also looked much better in road games against Georgia and South Carolina, with a real shot to win both of those games late in the second half. Tennessee must play better today against Kentucky, and they need to play well enough to use the crowd as a weapon in a home game for the first time this season.
For Tennessee, giving the crowd something to cheer about is going to be key in this game. That means that the Vols have to make some plays when they have the ball, and that they must contain the explosive Snell. While the Wildcats have talent on their offensive roster, Benny Snell is the engine that makes the Cats go. Expect to see Tennessee to load the box against Snell and the Kentucky running game, adopting an attitude of forcing Kentucky to beat them with anyone else on their roster. Expect to see Kentucky come out in some of the double tight end sets Tennessee has struggled so much against the last two weeks and run a fair amount anyway. That is who these Wildcats are. Snell is their horse, and they are going to ride him. If Tennessee can contain Snell and force the Wildcats to rely on Terry Wilson’s arm, they have a chance. Wilson has a propensity for turning the ball over, and Tennessee has some defenders, namely Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson, that can turn those into points. The Vols may need a defensive score to pull this off, but the pair of true freshman corners are both capable of supplying it. Taylor and Thompson are going to be left one on one in a lot of man coverage situations today. The young bucks have risen to the occasion this season and played very well, and they have an opportunity to keep Tennessee in the game today, or even help them win it.
When Tennessee has the ball, expect to see more of the same from the last two weeks, quick passes, screens, misdirection, and the occasional deep shot thrown off play action and max protection. The Tennessee line must find a way to generate enough push to allow the Vol running backs to be a factor in this game. Ty Chandler, Tim Jordan, and Jeremy Banks are too valuable and too explosive to remain non-factors because they are being hit as soon as they take a handoff. If Tennessee can generate even a serviceable ground game, it opens the play action pass and buys Jarrett Guarantano some time to throw the ball. For all the struggles this season, the Volunteer passing game has been effective, particularly when you consider how poorly the offensive line has played and how little support the rushing attack has offered. If the Vols can make Kentucky respect the run, Guarantano has a pair of weapons in Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway that he feels confident about throwing a jump ball to against anyone. More involvement from Ty Chandler as a receiver and a greater utilization of Dominick Wood-Anderson can also help Tennessee today. The Vols have to get their best athletes the ball and get it to them in space. If the line can give Guarantano enough time to find these weapons, they can gash a stingy Kentucky defense.
Tennessee must take advantage of any chances they get against a tough Kentucky defense, that means taking care of the ball, something the Vols have been good at this season, and cashing in on takeaways. The Vols will likely have a few chances at some turnovers if they can force Terry Wilson into passing downs. If Tennessee can turn the Cats over, they need to turn those chances into points. Winning the turnover battle will go a long way into keeping the Vols in this.
There is certainly a monumental task in front of the Vols today if they want to upset the number eleven Wildcats. While Tennessee may want to say that they aren’t as bad as they played last week, they put it on tape, and were at least that bad for one game. They must get a much better effort up front to win this game, and even then, will likely need to get a defensive score in order to win an ugly, low scoring game if it goes their way. Tennessee has put some good efforts on the field this season, but it seems when one unit rises to the occasion, two others have terrible games. It will take solid games from all the Volunteer units, playing sixty minutes of good football, and their best effort at home this year to extend their winning streak over the Cats in Neyland. The Vols are capable, and a Kentucky team coming off a loss to Georgia could be a bit deflated, but Tennessee has to turn potential into results to do what so many teams before them have done: Beat Kentucky in Neyland.