For all the times we've used "I'll believe it when I see it" and dismissed the Cats' chances, a serious look at their season shows UK as a real threat that cannot be denied or ignored. Their record says 6-5, but the difference between UK's season and UT's is competitiveness.
While the Vols were finding their way, five of their six losses were by at least 14 points. Only one of UK's five losses was by that much, and that was in September to Florida. After that, the Cats lost to Ole Miss by seven, Auburn by three, beat South Carolina, lost to Georgia by thirteen but outgained them 423-290, and lost to Mississippi State by seven. So while their only marquee win is South Carolina, that's one more marquee win than we've got. Which means beating Kentucky would be, in every way, the biggest win of our season.
The Vols will have a better chance of getting that win than they've had at any other point this season: the wide receivers are all healthy, and we're a handful when we put Gerald Jones, Denarius Moore, Justin Hunter, and Luke Stocker on the field at the same time. The offensive line has matured and will go with the same starting five for the third consecutive week. The defensive line won't miss Montori Hughes any more than they already have, and we've gotten really good play from Chris Walker, Gerald Williams, and Malik Jackson in the last few weeks. And the secondary has produced nine interceptions in the last three games. When you factor in Tyler Bray, we've got our best players playing their best football at the right time. How much of our best football has been a factor of the competition we've been playing? We're about to find out, cause Kentucky is the best team we'll see this month.
5 keys to 26 after the jump...
1. Value possessions
If this does in fact turn into a shootout, the Vols need to make sure they take advantage of every scoring opportunity. Tyler Bray used big plays to get the Vols two scores at South Carolina, and then used a bit of everything against Memphis and Ole Miss. Only once in those ten quarters did the Vol offense blow a scoring opportunity, when a sack knocked the Vols out of field goal range on the second drive of the Ole Miss game.
Against Vandy, Bray's first interception came at the five yard line. In the third quarter, the Vols had a first down at the Vandy 38, then had two false start penalties in three plays, and ended up punting. When you factor in muffed punts and the pick six that was called back, Tennessee gave away plenty of chances in Nashville.
It's unfair to ask Bray and the Vols to score a touchdown on every possession, though remember that Kentucky gives up 34.7 points per game in SEC play. What's not too much to ask from Bray is what we've pointed out from the beginning with him: he loves going for the big play, and it cost him twice at Vandy. We'll have a chance to hit some of those on Saturday, but there will also be times where Bray needs to check it down and keep the chains moving. Early in the year, any sack or penalty meant the Vols would be punting a few plays later. While Bray may give this group more potential, the line has to avoid false starts, holding, or giving up sacks that take away the chance to score points. We also have a kicker who hasn't missed at our disposal.
Points are out there on Saturday. The Vols need to make sure they don't leave opportunities to get them on the field.
2. Don't wait, Tauren Poole
The good news is, Kentucky is 87th nationally against the run. The bad news is, Vanderbilt is 95th, and the Vols struggled to get 128 yards against them. Tauren Poole averages 85 yards per game, but they haven't come easy in the last two games.
Against Ole Miss, the Vols went pass heavy and Poole got only 12 carries. In the second half, Poole ripped off 35 and 36 yard TD runs against a defense that hadn't given up anything on the ground all day. Against Vandy, the Vols went to Poole more often, but before his 28 yard TD run in the final minutes, Poole had 22 carries for 71 yards - tough sledding against the 95th ranked run defense.
The Vols still struggle to get yards up the middle, but Kentucky has been vulnerable: Brandon Bolden ran for 108 against them, Marcus Lattimore had 79 yards on just 15 carries before getting hurt, and Washaun Ealey got 157 on them.
I'll be curious to see how Coach Chaney goes at Kentucky in terms of playcalling, but you'd like to think that Tennessee's chances go up if Poole can make a difference early, instead of late in the game with one or two big runs. Maybe Bray can beat them just throwing the ball all over the place, but if the Vols can be efficient in both phases early, it'll make Tyler's life much easier.
3. What's the magic number?
As in, how many points will the Vols have to score to win this game?
To keep the magic number reasonable, the Vol defense has to continue to create turnovers. We mentioned this before the Ole Miss game: one of the major differences in the LSU and South Carolina games and the other UT losses was the way the Vol defense bent but didn't break: four turnovers against the Tigers, an end zone pick and a missed field goal against South Carolina. Obviously, turnovers (including two pick sixes) were a huge part of the Ole Miss win.
Unless Mike Hartline (22-8 TD-INT ratio) starts feeling more generous than usual, you can't count on a bunch of mistakes from UK's offense. But turning touchdowns into field goals can also be a huge help - the Vols turned Vandy away in the red zone twice last week.
I'll say this: Kentucky has scored between 31-38 on Ole Miss, Auburn, South Carolina, Georgia, and Vanderbilt in SEC play; three of those teams have a better defense than the Vols do. So yeah, if the Vols get 40, they should win. It's the defense's job to give the Vols a chance if they only get 30.
4. The Derrick Locke factor
You know about Randall Cobb, you know Hartline will put up yards. It's Locke who could be the x-factor here - he ripped off four straight 100 yard efforts to open the season, had 176 total yards against Ole Miss, then got hurt and had only five carries against Auburn. His only game back from injury was against Vanderbilt two weeks ago, where he dropped 145 yards on the Dores.
He's a talented player that has to be accounted for, and gives Kentucky the extra dimension they need. Again: this will be the best offense the Vols have faced this month, and Tennessee's defense has no history of stopping good offenses. While we're busy trying to deal with Cobb, Locke could kill us. It's time for this defense to play its best game of the season and show us what they've learned...because it may take their best effort to get the win.
5. Be the more poised team
I don't care what anyone in blue says, they want this win badly. If Tennessee can make something good happen early (and we need a good crowd to help this effort), UK may get a case of the "herewegoagain"s. Likewise, Dooley has preached on the importance of responding to adversity all season. If Kentucky gets up 14-0, how will the Vols respond? How will Tyler Bray respond? What if we need Bray to make a drive in the final minute to win?
From an emotional standpoint, it makes sense that Kentucky would want it more, and our seniors will have to deal with their own emotions as well. But if the Vols can be the more poised team, they can swing emotion in their favor and make it work against Kentucky.
This game will be an excellent test of the maturity of this team. If we want to take that next step and continue to mature, the only way through is to beat Kentucky.