It has been a long, long time since the Kentucky Wildcats knocked off the Tennessee Volunteers in Neyland Stadium. 33 years, to be exact. In 1984 a 7-3 Wildcats team, ranked 19th in the AP poll, left Knoxville after a low-scoring 17-12 victory. This game was so long ago I haven’t even been able to track down a box score. But, what I do know is this - A similar scene is set for the 2018 edition of the ‘Battle for the Beer Barrel.’
Kentucky comes in to Neyland this year with a 7-2 record, and ranked #12 per the AP (#11 per the College Football Playoff Committee). They’ve been offensively challenged of late, averaging 15 points per game since the month of September. However, this team is ranked highly for a reason. Kentucky’s defense is loaded with experience, and they’ve been able to stymie practically every team on their schedule except Georgia. This team has found ways to win, from last second heroics on the road at Missouri to more convincing wins on the road at a ranked Florida team and at home against a ranked Mississippi State.
Offensively, the key to their success is standout running back Benny Snell Jr. He is a workhorse, a touchdown machine who averages over 5 yards per carry throughout his collegiate career. Getting the ball into the hands of Snell is, obviously, a priority for Kentucky (with the exception of overtime against Texas A&M, which...I still can’t explain).
At times they’ll get too carried away with feeding Snell the ball. One of the ways that I think they do this is actually with their use of the Wildcat formation. Snell isn’t a threat to pass the ball, which is needed to keep a defense honest. Because a pass is such a low probability from this look defenses have packed the box full when facing this formation.
As a result Kentucky hasn’t been able to find much room to run from the Wildcat formation recently. Tennessee can expect to see Snell getting the ball on a gap-scheme run from this formation, and can adjust accordingly.
What will be more difficult to stop, however, will be the numerous Unbalanced formations that Kentucky likes to employ. Unbalanced looks are a favorite of Eddie Gran’s (who holds the ridiculous title of ‘assistant head coach of the offense’ rather than simply ‘offensive coordinator’).
Here is an example from the Florida game.
As you can see, the player circled in blue is being ‘covered up’ on the line of scrimmage by the player circled in yellow. Therefore, the player in yellow is an eligible receiver, but the player circled in blue is not. Although the player circled in blue looks like a receiver he cannot legally receive a pass and he cannot go downfield farther than 3 yards prior to a forward pass being thrown.
Kentucky has quite the catalog of unbalanced formations, and the Vols’ will need to be able to recognize which players are and are not eligible as receivers on each one. I expect this to be a challenge for Tennessee considering the youth at cornerback and the injury concerns at safety. Quarterback Terry Wilson and receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. are waiting to take advantage of any confusion.
On top of finding Bowden within the unbalanced looks,taking him away in the passing game will be just as critical. Bowden is by far Wilson’s favorite target. He has more than twice as many catches as the next closest receiver on the team. The more you watch Kentucky the easier it is to see why. He has speed to burn defenders deep and elusiveness to turn a short catch into a big gain. Here is an additional example of Wilson finding Bowden (this time from a balanced, trips formation that looks similar to the previous GIF).
If Tennessee is able to take away Snell in the running game and Bowden in the passing game there is still one problem remaining. Terry Wilson using his legs. Wilson presents a threat scrambling that Tennessee hasn’t seen all year. Sure, they have faced mobile players like Will Grier or Tua Tagovailoa. But, they haven’t seen a true dual-threat quarterback of Wilson’s caliber. As recently as two weeks ago he led the SEC in yards from scrambling (I imagine this hasn’t changed, but I haven’t been able to locate any official stats to back that up). Kentucky is also not afraid to use him on designed runs.
The Vols’ will have their work cut out for them Saturday afternoon. Here are the aspects of the game that I am most intrigued by:
- How do the Vols’ adjust to the unbalanced looks?
- Which player(s) will be tasked with defending Bowden? Will it be one of the true freshman (assuming they are not ejected on poor targeting calls), or will we use a veteran like Baylen Buchanan?
- If Tennessee can’t slow down Kentucky, will the Wildcats do us some favors (i.e. running Wildcat formation and letting the Vols sell-out to stop the run)?
As I predicted over in the Rocky Top Talk Staff Predictions post I think Kentucky will win this one by about a touchdown. Having read a little bit more about their offense, what are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments below or reach out over on Twitter!