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Tennessee Volunteer Football Opponent Preview: Kentucky Wildcats

An opportunity to get to 5-5 on the season awaits the Vols.

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Tennessee
Can the Vols keep the momentum rolling?
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The Tennessee Volunteers (4-5) head to Lexington this weekend to take on the Kentucky Wildcats (4-4) in a game that could determine the outcome of postseason aspirations for either team.

Tennessee has won two games in a row for the first time this year after defeating the UAB Blazers 30-7 last week. The defense was able to force four turnovers (all interceptions) and the offense took advantage of the short field.

The Vols return to SEC play this weekend. It’s the first of the final three games of the season - which are all SEC games - that will determine how Tennessee’s season plays out.

Will the Vols start off this week on the right foot against Kentucky?

Overview

Kentucky may just be 4-4, but they’re not your average 4-4 team. The Wildcats are currently playing with wide receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. at quarterback after losing starter Terry Wilson for the season, while backup Sawyer Smith has missed time with injuries of his own.

The team has also been without its best linebacker, Kash Daniel, for the past two games. He may miss this game against Tennessee. Wide receiver Ahmad Wagner, who was coming along nicely, is questionable, as well.

Injuries have certainly taken a toll, but Mark Stoops has done a very good job in salvaging the 2019 season. He’s been the glue/rock for the Wildcats and the nation is taking notice, especially those in the Tallahassee area.

But in a physical sense, Stoops won’t be on the field competing with the Vols.

Bowden Jr. has done a good job playing quarterback, but it is extremely limited. His best passing performance came against Arkansas, where he completed 7-of-11 passes for 78 yards and a touchdown.

Where he kills you is on the ground. Since taking over at quarterback, Bowden Jr. has averaged over eight yards per carry (8.04) on 62 attempts (499 rushing yards). Those numbers include one game in which he ran for more than 200 yards and one where he ran for 196. Don’t forget about his four rushing touchdowns, either.

Asim Rose has had a hand in the last three games, averaging around 60 yards a game and around 4.5 yards per carry, but he has two career carries against the Vols. It’ll be tough to really know how much of an impact he has on the game. Kavoisey Smoke, Rose’s backup, averages over five yards per carry, but has just four combined carries in the last two games. Will Stoops use him more on Saturday?

Bowden Jr. is not only the team’s best option at quarterback right now, but he’s the team’s best receiver - period. He can’t play both positions at the same time, obviously, so someone will have to step up in his place.

If Wagner misses this game, then there will be very few options in terms of receivers. Josh Ali is second on the team with 15 receptions, but averages just 9.5 yards per reception. Rose can catch out of the backfield, but it’s not a mismatch for the Vols. Tennessee’s corners should have a relatively easy day on Saturday.

Justin Rigg leads the tight end group with nine catches on the year, but the position is mainly used as an extra blocker with Bowden Jr. now at quarterback. Still, Rigg can exploit the middle of the field if given the opportunity.

The offensive line is a very, very solid group. The unit has allowed 13 sacks on the year (43rd in the country) and anchors the 32nd-best rushing attack in the nation (201.4 yards per game). Bowden Jr. has been sacked twice and has two games with over 200 rushing yards in the last three games.

Kentucky’s defense is what has kept the program on level ground in 2019. Calvin Taylor Jr. is arguably the best player on defense and is a monster at 6-foot-9 and 310-pounds. He leads the team with five sacks and is tied for the team lead with six TFLs and two forced fumbles. The best part is that Kentucky can use him in a variety of ways, so it will be integral that Tennessee keys in on him often.

Marquan McCall gets a shoutout just because he is gigantic, too, at 6-foot-3, 365-pounds.

If Daniel can’t play, it’ll be a big loss for Kentucky and big win for the Vols. Chris Oats is a capable player, however, and the trio of Deandre Square, Jordan Wright, and Jamar Watson are very effective players.

The secondary is ridiculously young. 13 of the 19 players listed on Kentucky’s roster as either cornerback, defensive back, or safety are underclassmen. As a whole, the group has just three interceptions on the year and two of the three picks belong to upperclassmen.

But even though the position group doesn’t really light up the stat sheet, it’s one of the top secondaries in the country in terms of overall defensive efficiency.

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Tennessee
Lynn Bowden Jr. will start at quarterback for the Wildcats.
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

What To Watch For

  • The Bowden Jr. factor: How effective will Bowden Jr. be? We saw what Jeremy Pruitt did to Terry Wilson last year.
  • Tennessee’s receivers vs. Kentucky’s secondary: It really feels like Kentucky’s secondary doesn’t get picked on enough. Jauan Jennings and co. should have room to work with in Lexington.
  • One-dimensional offense: Pruitt excels when going up against one-dimensional offenses and the Vols have to look no further to last year’s 24-10 win over the Wildcats. If Bowden Jr. can’t make plays through the air, it could a long day for the boys in blue.
  • Wildcat wide receivers: Speaking of the passing game, who will step up at wide receiver for the Cats?
  • Kentucky’s rushing offense vs. Tennessee’s rushing defense: Both teams are in the top-50 when it comes to each category. Who blinks first in Lexington?

Impact Players

Tennessee Volunteers

  • QB Brian Maurer: IF he plays, Maurer’s abilities as a runner and passer should help offset Kentucky’s defense.
  • WR Jauan Jennings: He should eat on Saturday.
  • Vols’ offensive line: Calvin Taylor Jr. and co. will be tough to combat since Kentucky can bring pressure from all different directions.
  • DL Darel Middleton: He will be needed to help set the line of scrimmage against this rushing attack.
  • LB Henry To’o To’o: Kentucky is going to run the ball, so all hands on deck will be required at the second level.
  • LB Daniel Bituli: See above.
NCAA Football: South Carolina at Tennessee
Jauan Jennings has been feasting on opposing secondaries lately.
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky Wildcats

  • QB/WR Lynn Bowden Jr.: He’s played well since taking over the starting quarterback gig. What will Jeremy Pruitt have in store for him?
  • RB Asim Rose: It will mean great things for Kentucky if Rose can get going on the ground.
  • Kentucky’s offensive line: Easily the best position group on offense, it will be up to the big guys if the offense wants to establish a presence.
  • DE Calvin Taylor Jr.: This guy will be fun to watch on Saturday.
  • OLB Jamar Wright: Wright can really make life hell for quarterbacks if he gets going.
  • Kentucky’s secondary: If Tennessee can get good play out of its quarterbacks, then it could be a long day for the secondary unless someone steps up.

Game Outlook

I don’t think this will be an easy win for the Vols, but I do feel like it will be a game where they are in firm control for the majority of the contest.

The defense continues to play well and is starting to turn a corner as a group. As I’ve mentioned in the preview, Pruitt knows how to play against one-dimensional offenses. I don’t expect anything to change in that regard this weekend. If the Vols can slow down the Wildcat’s ground attack, then it should be very hard for Kentucky to score points.

It may be hard for Tennessee’s offense to score points, too, but the recent development of the offensive line should be the deciding factor, especially if Darnell Wright is able to play. If Maurer plays, it will be a tremendous boost for the offense and may even be what puts the Vols over the top.

Kentucky is going to be pissed after getting embarrassed last year, but it really seems like the Vols have turned a corner, while Kentucky has too many injuries right now.

Tennessee continues its march toward the postseason and gets back to .500 with a win in Lexington this weekend.