The Vols host the Kentucky Wildcats at noon in Neyland Stadium this Saturday with a trip to Atlanta still in play. Kentucky's loss to Georgia last week took a bit of the shine off this one, but it's still one of the most important games between these two teams we have seen in some time. Here are the keys to Tennessee taking one more step toward the SEC Championship Game.
Lean on the run, but use its advantage in balance. When you look at the Tennessee comps in the second table below, you'll see that Kentucky ranks as the worst rushing defense that Tennessee has played this year. Before you get too excited about that, though, note that the next best rushing defense the Vols have played is South Carolina, and Tennessee only put up 136 on the Gamecocks and lost. But if you're inclined to write off the SC game as an anomaly, I'll sit with you in that boat for now. So the Vols should be able to run the ball well this Saturday.
Tennessee should make the most of its passing game, too though. As bad as Kentucky is against the run, they are also not especially good at defending the pass. Texas A&M is the next worst passing defense team that Tennessee has played, and Appalachian State is the next best. The results against those teams were mixed (402 against A&M and 198 against App State), but even if you just average those two results out, it's still an opportunity for a good day through the air for the Vols. So the Tennessee offense should make the most of its advantage running the ball, but should also be able to be balanced enough to keep the Kentucky defense from overcommitting to the run game.Commit to limiting the Wildcats' rushing yards. If Kentucky has success on offense in this game, it is almost certainly going to come on the ground. They're averaging 216 yards on the ground per game, which is somewhere between what Ohio and App State are currently averaging. Ohio turned out not to be a problem for the Vols, but the Mountaineers gave them fits and put up 184. The good news is that the Wildcats appear to be one-dimensional, so Tennessee should be able to commit more of its defense to mitigating the damage in the run game.
Focus. This has been a key all year. When the team is locked in, they're really good, and when they're not, they are extremely vulnerable. Which team will we see Saturday at noon? Who knows? We may see both. But if they keep their minds right for enough of the game, they should be able to get it done and keep trucking on the road to Atlanta.
Tennessee 35, Kentucky 23.
The tables for this week are below. But as always, a quick note on strength of schedule first. The Vols still hold the nation's most-difficult schedule, while Kentucky's is ranked 61st. The Wildcats' opponents to date have S&P+ rankings of #75, #15, #123, #86, #2, #90, #60, #58, and #70. Tennessee's are #26, #17, #91, #15, #70, #20, #2, #86, and an FCS opponent. All of that means that the first comps table is "stronger" than the second. Handy look at the relative strength of schedules:
|2 (Alabama: L; 49-10)||2 (Alabama: L; 34-6)|
|15 (Florida: W; 38-28)||15 (Florida: L; 45-7)|
|20 (Texas A&M: L; 45-38)|
|70 (Georgia: W; 34-31)||70 (Georgia: L; 27-24)|
|86 (South Carolina: L; 24-21)||86 (South Carolina: W, 17-10)|
Processing Tennessee vs. Kentucky.
|Tennessee||Kentucky||Comps||Result against Comps||Guess|
|Next Worst||Next Best||Next Worst||Next Best|
|Tennessee rushing offense vs. Kentucky rushing defense||166.7||198.6||None||South Carolina||None||South Carolina||180|
|Tennessee passing offense vs. Kentucky passing defense||224.8||227.0||Texas A&M||Appalachian State||Texas A&M||Appalachian State||280|
|Tennessee rushing defense vs. Kentucky rushing offense||191.7||215.8||Ohio||Appalachian State||Ohio||Appalachian State||180|
|Tennessee passing defense vs. Kentucky passing offense||201.6||174.6||Tennessee Tech||Appalachian State||Tennessee Tech||Appalachian State||140|
|Tennessee scoring offense vs. Kentucky scoring defense||32.1||30.4||Tennessee Tech||Georgia||Tennessee Tech||Georgia||38|
|Tennessee scoring defense vs. Kentucky scoring offense||25.9||27.3||Tennessee Tech||Ohio||Tennessee Tech||Ohio||20|
Processing Kentucky vs. Tennessee.
|Kentucky||Tennessee||Comps||Result against Comps||Guess|
|Next Worst||Next Best||Next Worst||Next Best|
|Kentucky rushing offense vs. Tennessee rushing defense||215.8||191.7||South Carolina||Vanderbilt||South Carolina||Vanderbilt||230|
|Kentucky passing offense vs. Tennessee passing defense||174.6||201.6||Georgia||South Carolina||Georgia||South Carolina||130|
|Kentucky rushing defense vs. Tennessee rushing offense||198.6||166.7||Vanderbilt||Georgia||Vanderbilt||Georgia||180|
|Kentucky passing defense vs. Tennessee passing offense||227.0||224.8||Mississippi State||Florida||Mississippi State||Florida||210|
|Kentucky scoring offense vs. Tennessee scoring defense||27.3||25.9||Southern Mississippi||Vanderbilt||Southern Mississippi||Vanderbilt||26|
|Kentucky scoring defense vs. Tennessee scoring offense||30.4||32.1||Vanderbilt||Southern Mississippi||Vanderbilt||Southern Mississippi||33|
So . . .
Tennessee: 180 rushing yards, 245 passing yards, 35 points.
Kentucky: 205 rushing yards, 135 passing yards, 23 points.