Will Shelton - Jalen Reeves-Maybin
The defense definitely needed the bye week after dealing with a huge number of snaps from Ole Miss, one of the best teams in the nation in Alabama, and then South Carolina's potent offense. No player better demonstrates the grind of a season defensively than JRM, who launched out of the gate with seven tackles for loss in Tennessee's first five games, but has only one in the last four. He continues to be the team's second leading tackler behind A.J. Johnson, but after averaging 8.3 tackles in the first seven games he's averaged just 6.5 in the last two. There are more questions about Tennessee's ability to stop Kentucky than Tennessee's ability to score on Kentucky. If the defense is going to return to the form we saw earlier this season in November, getting JRM back to a high level of play at linebacker is a key component.
Incipient_Senescence - John Jancek
Maybe it's fatigue. Maybe it's facing a pair of great offensive minds. More likely, it's a combination of factors [Do we get coachspeak bingo points for articles not written by coaches? Just wondering. No reason]. Whatever the issues, John Jancek's defenses have flat out stunk the last two games after being very good for the first half of the season. Coming off a bye week, the fatigue issues should be mitigated against Kentucky. But a dropoff that severe can't be blamed 100% on fatigue. Jancek needs to push the right buttons this week to get the defense playing like they were early in the season. Because if the defense plays well, a resurgent offense under Josh Dobbs could turn this into a big orange romp.
Joel Hollingsworth - A.J. Johnson
I'm going with A.J. because although I haven't yet looked that closely at the matchups, I get the feeling at this time that stopping the run game is going to be key. Will's already got Mayhem on high alert, and I'm putting The Beast on high alert, too. Keep them and those backs and that quarterback from getting past the line on their legs, and we should be fine. Honorable Mention goes to the offense, which at some point is going to forget to fill up the tank think it can cruise on the fumes of high praise. I hope this isn't the week.
Chris Pendley - Josh Dobbs
I'd like to thank everyone ahead of me for missing the obvious choice. Dobbs and Kentucky QB Patrick Towles are fairly similar in that they're primarily pro-style types but have legs. I don't think anyone this side of kidbourbon expected Dobbs to open up with 450+ total yards against South Carolina, but now that we know he can do that, the bar for competence has increased. Yes, the defense went sketchy on the team the last couple weeks, but there's the rest of the season pointing to their recovery. Dobbs has had two games against wildly divergent defenses, and facing a QB who's in his realm, winning that one-on-one battle (even though they're not on the field at the same time, but you know what I'm talking about) goes a long way toward winning on Saturday.
Hunter Turner - Pig Howard
Josh Dobbs is probably the most important Vol this weekend, but since he's taken, let's go ahead and take the other half of the equation: newly rejuvenated wide receiver Pig Howard. Against South Carolina, Howard had probably his finest game since 2013 Georgia-Tennessee. Maybe it took that long to recover from his heartbreaking fumble (which may have also led to his academic probation and time away from the team) but whatever the reason, Howard looked flat out unstoppable at times against the Gamecocks, making catch after crucial catch during the Vols' comeback.
The last time Tennessee lost to Kentucky, it took a total team breakdown, with the defense making a converted wide receiver playing quarterback look like the second coming of the Hefty Lefty and the offense stalling on drive after drive. But even with all of that putrid play, the Vols still had an opportunity to win, only to have David Ricky alligator arm his way out of a starring role. So let's never do that again, or talk about that again, and Pig, if you're reading this: catch everything thrown your way, and you should be able to match your twitter name no problem.
TL;DR: Kentucky is good enough that this game isn't a gimme. Someone has to make plays in the passing game, and with Marquez North wearing the green jersey in practice, that means Howard, Pearson, and Malone need to step up.
Kid Bourbon - Marquez North
If you asked a random sampling of Vol fans a few weeks ago who our best offensive player was, the vast majority would have answered Marquez North, and without much hesitation. If you posed the same question today, you'd get very different results. For the team as a whole, this is by no means a bad thing. Indeed, it's quite fantastic that the play at the quarterback position has so drastically improved, and it's great to see Pig Howard performing at a level exceeding the preseason expectations of most fans. The more guys making plays, the better.
But as much as we want to see players perform better than we may have expected, we don't like it when players aren't quite as productive as we believe their talent level dictates. I still think Marquez North is our most talented wide receiver and that he's very capable of having a breakout performance in any of the remaining games. And against UK, we're going to need him to do that. The Kentucky defense can be easily exploited by good receivers. That is not a bold statement. I mean, when you make Hutson Mason look like 1994 Steve Young then your defense is arguably terrible against the pass. And when you play against such a chamin-soft pass defense, you have to go ahead and exploit that weakness. Marquez North is the guy who can impose his will on their defense and have a field day. And if that happens, Tennessee will definitely win the football game, and possibly by a comfortable margin.