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Josh Heupel previews Kentucky

NCAA Football: Florida at Kentucky Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

The Tennessee Volunteers are looking to improve to 5-4 on the season, and maybe more importantly, they’re looking to erase any memory of their 2020 meeting with Kentucky. The Wildcats walked out of Neyland Stadium with their first win in Knoxville since the 1984 season, and they did it in blowout fashion, 34-7.

Simply put, that’s something that doesn’t happen to Tennessee in this series.

Kentucky has been on the rise for the last several seasons, experiencing stability like they’ve never seen before under Mark Stoops. The No. 18 Wildcats are 6-2, looking to win back to back games against Tennessee for the first time since 1972-73.

“Big challenge,” Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel said of Kentucky on Wednesday. “I mean they’re big, strong, physical, do a great job of getting a hat on a hat. You’ve watched them, they get a ton of movement up front in distorting and changing the line of scrimmage. We’ve got to do a great job of communication, first and second level. Third level as well when the safeties are in the fit. And then we’ve got to have some block destruction, too, and be able to make plays when we get off of it.”

Stoops looked to the NFL ranks in the offseason to overhaul his struggling offense. He hired Liam Coen away from the Rams, looking to boost Kentucky’s passing attack. The move has been a positive one, but the Wildcats still want to win games on the ground.

Quarterback Will Levis has thrown for nearly 1,500 yards so far this season, completing 66 percent of his passes. He’s thrown 14 touchdowns, but also has tossed nine interceptions. Running back Chris Rodriguez is averaging six yards per carry so far, with 809 yards rushing and five touchdowns on the year.

Wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson is the big play threat for Kentucky, averaging 11 yards per catch so far. He’s scored five times, putting up 645 yards receiving to this point. His 58 catches lead the team by a wide margin — the next closest is Josh Ali with 19.

The 5-11 junior will be a major focus for Tim Banks and company on Saturday night.

“They’re going to target him, or try to target him, just because of his skill set,” Heupel said on Monday. “Extremely fast, reliable as far as catching the football, creates a bunch of explosive plays. He’s able to do that with some short and intermediate passes, screen game, and then some isolations out on the outside. He’s somebody that we’ve got to know where he’s at the entire game.”

Kentucky dropped a game last Saturday to Mississippi State, 31-17. They couldn’t overcome a strong day from quarterback Will Rogers, who completed 36-39 passes on the day to keep the chains moving.

The Wildcats are strong defensively, ranking 33rd in the country. They didn’t give up much on the ground last week, and that front seven should once again challenge Tennessee’s rushing attack this week.

“Offensively, you’ve got to be really efficient in what you’re doing in the run game,” Heupel said. “They don’t give up a bunch of big plays in the pass game. You’ve got to be highly efficient. It’s what Mississippi State did a week ago.”

The good news is that Tennessee has been pretty efficient offensively since Hendon Hooker took over at quarterback. The Volunteers rank 22nd in total offense, and will test that stout Kentucky front with the 13th-ranked rushing attack in the country. What the Volunteers can’t afford to do is disappear in the fourth quarter, like we’ve seen them do at times this season.

Tennessee has some support from sportsbooks here. Per DraftKings Sportsbook, Tennessee has gone from +3 to an even pick ‘em since the spread opened on Sunday night.

Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2.

Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See for details.