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Tennessee Football Opponent Preview: Kentucky Wildcats

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Tennessee heads to Lexington as an underdog in a series it has dominated for the past three decades.

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The Tennessee Volunteers head to Lexington, Ky. to take on the Kentucky Wildcats this Saturday. Kentucky opened as a 5.5-point favorite - now down to 3.5 - despite having beaten Tennessee just once since 1985.

Both teams are coming off 45-7 losses, with Tennessee’s coming at the hands of No. 1 Alabama and Kentucky’s coming to Mississippi State.

The Vols are on quite the skid, starting 3-4 and 0-4 in SEC play. Kentucky sits at 5-2 and 2-2 in the SEC.

Overview

Despite a seemingly respectable 5-2 record, Kentucky is not a very good football team.

The Wildcats beat Southern Miss by seven points, Eastern Kentucky by 11 after being in a dogfight for the first three quarters and Eastern Michigan by four. Although, one could argue Kentucky plays to the level of its competition, as UK snatched defeat from the jaws of victory against Florida and lost by one point.

The good news for Tennessee’s ailing offense is Kentucky has given up an average of 30 points per game to its SEC opponents. We’ll have to wait and see how much Tennessee is able to take advantage of that, as the Vols have not scored an offensive touchdown since the second quarter against UMass on Sept. 23.

Kentucky’s offense does have some playmakers. Wildcats running back Benny Snell Jr. may be the most dynamic player on the field this weekend, though he was stymied by Mississippi State’s defense. Tennessee will need the continued great play of Rashaan Gaulden in run support to keep UK’s rushing attack in check.

Last Game

Kentucky is coming off a performance similar to the one Tennessee gave last weekend, though not to quite the same quality of opponent. The Wildcats lost 45-7 to Mississippi State in Starkville.

Not too much of anything went right for UK. The Wildcats were held to just 260 yards of total offense and got in the end zone only once - though that may sound envious to Tennessee’s offense.

Kentucky allowed Mississippi State to rush for 282 yards on 48 attempts, an average of 5.9 yards per carry. The Bulldogs led 17-7 at halftime, but outscored the Wildcats 28-0 in the second half to run away with the game.

Impact Players

QB Stephen Johnson - Kentucky’s offense runs through Stephen Johnson. He’s not the most threatening player on the field, but he uses his arm well enough to open up lanes for Benny Snell. Johnson has completed 112 of 183 attempts for 1355 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions so far this season.

RB Benny Snell Jr. - Benny Snell may very well determine the outcome of this game. The sophomore rushed for nearly 1100 yards last season on just 186 attempts as a freshman. Snell has a more modest 541 yards this year, but is capable of breaking off a big run at any point. Also look for Snell to line up at quarterback in Kentucky’s Wildcat formation.

Game Outlook

Going on the road in the SEC is never an easy task, particularly when a team is reeling like Tennessee is right now.

And to make things even worse for the Vols, star running back John Kelly will be suspended for the game after being cited for marijuana possession earlier this week. With Kelly suspended, I don’t know that Saturday will be the day Tennessee gets its first conference win. Taking the best player off an offense which has struggled profoundly is obviously a worst-case scenario for the Vols.

Tennessee needs to limit Kentucky’s potentially explosive offense. The Vols’ defense has improved over the course of this season, with players like Rashaan Gaulden and Daniel Bituli turning into major contributors.

It may seem like things can’t get worse for the Vols, but the stain of Kentucky’s second win over UT in the last three decades would do it. And if Tennessee does drop this one, its path to bowl eligibility becomes pretty difficult.