It’s pretty obvious why the Tennessee Volunteers need to beat the Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday.
Not only would the Vols move to .500 on the season, but they would also be one win away - with two games left - from reaching a bowl game.
So, naturally, this would be considered a pretty important game.
As with all games, especially the important ones, you need to win the critical matchups if you want to win the game.
The Vols will need to win out in these three areas on Saturday if they want to beat the Wildcats for the second straight year.
1. Lynn Bowden Jr. vs. Tennessee’s defense
Keep in mind, Bowden Jr. was injured against Missouri and Sawyer Smith came in to replace him, so that’s something worth monitoring, but it’s likely Bowden will see the majority of the action at quarterback.
Bowden Jr. took over at quarterback about a month ago after Kentucky’s top two quarterbacks went down with injury. He’s easily the team’s best receiver, so it’s pretty cool to see him succeed like this over the last few games.
But as fun as it’s been to witness the Bowden Experiment, it’ll will be even more fun to see how the Vols attack Kentucky’s offense.
There is hardly a threat of an air attack, evidenced by Bowden Jr.’s 33 attempts over the last three games. He’s completed a paltry 5-of-22 passes for 71 yards in the last two games. His best game was his first start of the season against Arkansas, where he completed 7-of-11 passes for 78 yards and a touchdown.
The dude has been a monster on the ground, though. The combination of Bowden Jr., Asim Rose, and the Wildcat offensive line is a dangerous trio that you don’t want to be unprepared for.
Since Bowden Jr. was inserted at quarterback, he’s ran for over 200 yards once and 196 yards in three games. The team has averaged around 263.3 yards per game and 5.8 yards per carry.
Bowden Jr. accounts for 62 - or about 46% - of the team’s 136 carries and 499 - or about 63% - of the team’s total rushing yards during that span.
It seems pretty safe to say that the Wildcats’ offense starts and ends with Bowden Jr. He averages close to 21 carries per game for about 166 yards, but as mentioned earlier, he is not effective through the air at all.
Jeremy Pruitt has been known to shut down one-dimensional players and offenses. This feels a bit different, though. Mark Stoops and Eddie Gran have found a way to make things work with what they on offense and if the Vols can’t contain Kentucky’s ground game, it could be a long day.
2. Kentucky’s offensive line vs. Tennessee’s front seven
We know about Bowden Jr. and his effect on Kentucky’s offense, but this offensive line is one of the best to come out of Lexington in a while.
The line has given up just 13 sacks on the year - good for the 43rd in the country - and they’ve established a ground game that currently sits at 32nd in the country, averaging around 201.4 yards per game.
All five starters are quality players, but Drake Jackson and Landon Young are what make this position group so effective. It will be interesting to see how Jackson is able to help call out/shift protections when lined up against Pruitt’s defense.
Darel Middleton, Greg Emerson, Henry To’o To’o, and Daniel Bituli are going to be critical pieces in this matchup. Those four players will be responsible for maintaining their gap(s), setting the edge, holding the line of scrimmage, and dissecting reads quickly and effectively, all while staying disciplined and aggressive.
How Tennessee affects the offensive line will go a long way toward determining the outcome of this game.
3. Tennessee’s receivers vs. Kentucky’s secondary
Kentucky has a solid secondary, but it really feels like there is room to work with when it comes to UT’s receivers.
Jauan Jennings and co. have been on fire over the last three games. They’ve racked up around 30 catches for 377 yards and three touchdowns, which includes two games in which Jennings went over 100 receiving yards (Marquez Callaway had a 100-yard game in there, too).
The Wildcats currently own the 20th-best secondary when it comes to passing efficiency allowed on defense. However, it’s a group that hasn’t really been tested all that much when you look at the stats, and when they have been tested - they’ve been average at best.
Teams average right around 23 pass attempts per game when they are cramming the ball down Kentucky’s throat - which is pretty often. In the two games where teams have attempted 30 or more passes, Kentucky allowed a 64% completion rate for an average of around 318 yards per game. Eastern Michigan and Florida (the two opponents) combined for three passing touchdowns. They were also picked a combined three times, as well, but one of those went to linebacker Kash Daniel.
Is it possible that Kentucky’s secondary relies more upon the guys in the front seven to do their job rather than their own skill? It seems that way when you look at all the data that’s placed in front of you.
If Tennessee’s offensive line can protect the quarterbacks and give them time to throw and if the Vols can establish a ground game, then the air attack should come through as a natural beneficiary of the aforementioned factors.