In the same week that Cuonzo Martin gave us at least some reason to believe that the Tennessee-Kentucky rivalry doesn't have to go back to "Wait 'til football/basketball season" mode, Derek Dooley will attempt to get his team bowl eligible and keep the nation's longest active winning streak in an annual rivalry alive. Kentucky is familiar with heartbreak in this series, especially recently: UK's five year bowl run has included five losses to Tennessee; two in overtime, two others where the Cats were tied or had the lead in the third quarter, and one against the mighty Clawfense. Every time Kentucky gets close, the Vols find new ways to win. And every time Tennessee appears to be at a new low, the Vols still get it done against UK.
This year, Kentucky's bowl streak is over and Tennessee has (hopefully) just started to build momentum. Other than their stop in Houston Nutt's farewell tour, Kentucky hasn't played within one possession of any SEC foe; this includes losses of 38, 28, 51, and 30 this season to Florida, LSU, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt, respectively. They're coming off their best performance in a loss, a 19-10 defeat at the hands of the Georgia Bulldogs, but even that was a bit of an anomaly: UK had 165 yards of offense but stayed alive thanks to four UGA turnovers and four Blair Walsh field goals when the Dawgs were inside the 25 yard line.
The Vols may not be good enough to overwhelm anyone in the SEC, but Kentucky is in a weird place of being worse than any SEC team we've played, but maybe - maybe - slightly better than Buffalo and MTSU (though as Joel pointed out in our stats preview, UK is probably closer to Buffalo and MTSU than Vanderbilt).
This is certainly a game Tennessee should win; being that it's the final game of the regular season, even an ugly win would still lead straight to bowl eligibility and we'd take it. But hopefully, it's a game Tennessee can handle fairly easily with Tyler Bray back in the fold. After the jump, what to watch for in the quest for 27...
1. Start Fast
This is the first key for the second week in a row, but this time for a different reason. The Vols regained their confidence with the way they won last week and came from behind in the fourth quarter to do so, so I'm not really worried about what will happen to UT's collective psyche if Kentucky strikes first or things go wrong early. But if Kentucky is playing the part of the overmatched underdog, then the same old rule applies: take them out of the game as early as possible, and don't let them entertain victory.
Fortunately, Tennessee has been excellent at this under Derek Dooley. In the same way that victory felt really good last week, a take-care-of-business blowout would feel really good this week, and have this team surging toward the bowl game. There is still a chance for the majority of Tennessee fans to feel good about this thing going forward if the Vols dominate Kentucky and win their bowl game. Keep feeding the orange dog, early and often.
2. Tyler Bray doesn't hurt his own cause
We can easily forgive Bray for his two costly interceptions last week; we were so happy to see him for one, and there were five weeks of rust to account for as well. I would still argue that it was better for the Vols to win the way they did anyway, slaying a number of demons that would've otherwise stayed alive had Bray not thrown that pick six and Tennessee kept Vandy at a safe distance.
It was the first time Bray completed less than 50% of his passes (just barely, at 16 of 33) in a game he started. With the rust knocked off and his thumb a week stronger, expect fewer mistakes and more big plays from Bray. Kentucky's pass defense is 21st nationally (one spot ahead of the Vols), but I have a theory on that: when you're getting blown out early and often, teams tend to quit throwing the ball on you. Not only are UK's pass defense stats inflated by performances against Western Kentucky (95 yards) and Jacksonville State (112 yards), many of the teams that crushed them did so with very few pass attempts: 18 for Florida, 21 for LSU, 23 for Vanderbilt. You could make the same argument for Tennessee's pass defense, of course, but I think Bray will have no problem creating opportunities in the pass game against UK. Relating to the previous point, as long as Bray takes care of the football, Kentucky shouldn't have an opportunity to entertain victory. That's also because...
3. A game Tennessee's defense can truly dominate
Kentucky is the worst offense in the SEC by a hefty margin, averaging just 263.6 yards per game and just 233.5 yards per game in SEC play. Tennessee's defense has been bending without breaking all season, but the one exception was the MTSU game, where the Vols shut out the 38th best offense in the nation.
Kentucky? They're the 118th best offense in the nation. For context, Memphis is 117th.
We've talked a lot this week about the possibilities with Tennessee's defense in the future. The Vols are 35th in total defense this season, a number that should go up after this week. The Vols were 69th in that category last season, which means a unit that had to replace Chris Walker, Montori Hughes, Gerald Williams, LaMarcus Thompson, Nick Reveiz, Herman Lathers, Janzen Jackson, and Brent Brewer for part of the year has made significant improvement. Justin Wilcox has had an excellent scheme almost every week, and with the exception of horrendous tackling at Arkansas, the Vols have done a good job executing.
This could be a game where we see the defense truly shine: sacks, turnovers, and big plays in making sure that Kentucky is never a threat. Moving forward with nine returning starters plus Herman Lathers, this late stretch could be the sign of great things to come for the defense in the future.
4. Restore Devrin Young's confidence
Our freshman phenom return man has hit a wall of late: after averaging 18 yards per punt return from Buffalo through Alabama, Devrin Young has averaged just five yards per return since. And on kick returns, Young averaged 26 yards from Buffalo through MTSU, but averaged just 16 yards per return the last two weeks. Against Vanderbilt, Young downed a ball that was barely a yard deep in the end zone, which suggests a confidence problem.
We've been waiting all year for Young to break a big one for a touchdown, but even if he doesn't this week, just hitting a long one to restore his confidence would be big. Many freshmen hit the wall at some point in their first season, so I think Young will be fine overall. But he hasn't seen much action with the offense recently either - he can be a weapon for the Vols if Tennessee can put him in good position to do so.
5. Da'Rick Rogers record watch
Obviously the Vols need to win to give him an extra game to get there, but Rogers is currently 11 receptions behind Marcus Nash for the UT single season record. It'll take a huge effort, but he's 296 yards behind Robert Meachem for the yardage record, and four touchdowns behind Nash for the touchdowns record. Tyler Bray loves him some Da'Rick Rogers; 42 of his 65 receptions have come from #8. While it would be nice to see Mychal Rivera get involved again and/or see some of the younger guys get more active, Da'Rick strikes me as the sort of fellow who knows exactly how close he is to these records...which isn't a bad thing at all for your number one wide receiver. It feels strange to make the comparison because Nash was Option A for Peyton Manning in 1997 and Meachem was a big play specialist in 2006, both on really good teams...but this could be the most impressive season we've ever seen from a Tennessee wide receiver, if he finishes it out.