We return from the bye week with a hopefully-fresher Tennessee facing off against a Kentucky squad that looks a lot like Tennessee's: young, talented, and with more on the way. Kentucky's recruiting under Mark Stoops is much improved from what we're used to from the Wildcats (aka the two random really good players among a roster of the too-good-for-the-MAC All-Stars), and they'll be at worst upgraded to "feisty" for the next couple seasons. The caveat, of course, is that Tennessee's on the same upswing. Since the SEC East is fairly malleable right now, this game might matter more than it normally does pretty soon.
Of course, checking our own team shows us Kentucky's weakness: depth. Kentucky just got obliterated by Georgia in no small part because of exhaustion. This will be the Wildcats' eighth game in a row, and for a team trying to build up SEC-quality depth, these long runs of games without a bye week adds up.
And it sucks at the end of a long run of games when you play a dual-threat quarterback. This will be the first time in a while we'll actually be able to talk about the...
BATTLE OF THE DUAL-THREAT QUARTERBACKS
First things first: I don't think Joshua Dobbs will have the same numbers against Kentucky that he did against South Carolina. This isn't a knock on Dobbs as much as it is a statement on how absurd those numbers were-300 yards passing and 150+ running are some Dan LeFevour numbers. (If Dobbs turns out to be the next coming of LeFevour: great! I'll happily take it back.)
It's a little weird that both QBs are so adept at tucking and running; Kentucky QB Patrick Towles is averaging about 5.5 YPC on non-sack plays, but...well, dude's built like Tyler Bray and is mostly a scrambler. Dual-threat in theory, but I'm betting Dobbs runs as much as he does because of the offensive line.
So this is a weird dual-threat battle, where both Dobbs and Towles would prefer to be pocket-type passers but don't mind taking off when conditions dictate. In possibly related news, both offensive lines here are awful. Whoever does a better job evading pressure-and it's more likely to come from Tennessee's defensive line, as Kentucky's DL is mediocre-will stand to make hay. When in doubt, bet on health.
By YPA metrics, Kentucky's pass game is better than Tennessee's, but there are some mitigating factors, most notably whatever happened against South Carolina and Alabama. Meanwhile, Kentucky allowed 8 YPA to LSU and 12.1 YPA to Georgia, who combined have one quarterback. (They did better against South Carolina and did a fairly decent job of holding Dak Prescott in check through the air, although he threatened 100 yards on the ground.)
With that being said, I'm not sure I trust the level of QB Kentucky's played. Sure, Prescott is the best QB they've faced so far, but it's a long way down from Prescott to the second-best QB they've faced, who ....I'd guess is Hutson Mason? Maty Mauk? Maybe? Dobbs could easily be the second-best QB they've faced.
I'm less scared with Towles' arm and the Kentucky receiving corps than I am his ability to evade pressure and save plays for the Wildcats. If Kentucky starts dropping get-out-of-jail-free cards like they're going out of style, Tennessee's in trouble.
For Dobbs, the question is going to be how good he can be even with a likely slide. Kentucky actually has a pass defense, at least in theory, but their run defense leaves something to be desired. It's the same thing for Dobbs; evade pressure. He did a really good job against South Carolina, as the OL only allowed 3 TFL, which I'm assuming is a season low by a fair margin.
TENNESSEE SUCCEEDS IF: Towles is held under 50 yards on the ground not counting sacks and Dobbs breaks 400 combined yards.
TENNESSEE FAILS IF: Towles breaks 100 yards on the ground, Dobbs doesn't break 300 combined yards.
THE PREDICTION: Towles gets about 55 yards before sacks (maybe 20 with sacks?), Dobbs goes for about 385 combined. Close to a success, but not quite.
THE WEIRD REINVENTED RUN GAME
Kentucky's taken the running back by committee approach to its logical conclusion, as straight-up four guys-Stanley Williams, Braylon Heard, Jojo Kemp, and Mikel Horton-all have 50+ carries on the season. They average 5.5 YPC in total, which actually matches Towles' non-sack YPC. Weird coincidence, that, but it also tells me nobody in that group is good enough to demand all the touches.
Meanwhile, it appears Tennessee has a running game under Jalen Hurd and Dobbs. Hurd was friggin' mean against South Carolina, averaging 6.5 yards per touch. He'll need to approach those numbers again for Tennessee to have a chance, but the plus side is this: remember that malleable Kentucky run defense? It's pretty bad (although not on the South Carolina level of incompetence, which is a special level of bad), allowing 4.7 YPC.
Again, the game here is simple: stay out of passing downs jail. Both Hurd and Dobbs have done a good job of staying out of negative yardage plays when playing together, which-go figure-happens when you can actually execute zone reads because your QB is a threat to pull the ball, I'd guess. All these things matter, and the best-case scenario for Tennessee is if Hurd rips off a big run or two early, Kentucky sells out against him in the zone read game, and Dobbs gets to slide for 7 yards a pop.
On defense, stop me if you've heard this key before: edge control. The defense didn't have it (or anything else) against South Carolina, but rest should help, as should a home game.
TENNESSEE SUCCEEDS IF: Kentucky is held under 4 YPC, counting sacks, while Tennessee hits Kentucky's YPC allowed average at 4.7.
TENNESSEE FAILS IF: Kentucky breaks 5 YPC, Tennessee's running game looks like every other non-South Carolina week.
THE PREDICTION: See the "Tennessee Succeeds If" section. I don't trust Kentucky's run game in the slightest and the success against South Carolina was every bit schematic, which also means repeatable.
THE WEIRD MIDDLE GROUND OF INTANGIBLES
Kentucky's actually not great at third down, converting 36.6% against Tennessee's 40.4% and allowing conversions on 43.6% of third downs against Tennessee's 34.8%. In a game that'll be about getting out of jail, those numbers don't bode well for Kentucky. The net difference there is 12.6% in Tennessee's favor-or put differently, Tennessee may be looking at a once-every-eight-possessions bailout. Over the span of a game, that's at least two conversions that Tennessee can either count on or deny,
There isn't much to write home about on the kicking front, as literally all the major special teams categories are within a couple of yards average in either direction. So that may end up in a draw, although I'd like to once again reiterate the simple tenet of if it's in the end zone, sit on it and get the ball at the 25. Save yourself.
However, Tennessee will have two other major things working in their favor: home field and playing Kentucky. Unlike other opponents who might've played in Neyland with the game televised on the SEC Network earlier this year, Kentucky isn't in Tennessee's head. We're used to the games being close, we're used to blowouts, and we're used to Tennessee winning the game. On the flipside: this is a mountain for Kentucky, for all that entails. They're better, but this seems like the season of the moral victory for the Wildcats, and hey: they can always beat Louisville to go bowling. I wouldn't mind.
THE PREDICTION: 34-20 Tennessee.