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By the Numbers: Tennessee vs. Kentucky

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Do you like coin flips? Welcome to another game of Tennessee football!

NCAA Football: Kentucky at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

The Tennessee Volunteers return from a bye week with a tough game against the No. 18 Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington. Kentucky is having another good season under head coach Mark Stoops, and is 6-2 overall, including a huge win over their rival Florida Gators.

But the Wildcats are showing signs of weakness. They’ve lost their last two games against Georgia and Mississippi State—two contests where they failed to score 20 points, while giving up 30 or more.

Tennessee has also lost their last two games, but they had a bye week to rest up and get healthy. These are two teams desperate to get their seasons back on track—so which one will have the advantage? We bring you some numbers to consider.

DISCLAIMER: I’ll be honest— since Tennessee had a bye week, I never even thought to write down what exactly their rankings were post Alabama. I apologize for the oversight, and would just like to note that the numbers you see in the “Last Week” part are the numbers from before the Alabama game. I note this is because a lot of other teams played last Saturday. The rankings may have changed to reflect some of the results. So the current numbers include both the Alabama game result, and any movement from the other games that took place.

FEI (Fremeau Efficiency Index)

Tennessee Volunteers

Overall: 32nd (Last Week: 33rd)
Offense: 34th (Last Week: 34th)
Defense: 48th (Last Week: 51st)

Kentucky Wildcats

Overall: 30th
Offense: 48th
Defense: 27th

Despite some of the staff changes, the story for Kentucky football remains largely unchanged. A stout defense, with a struggling (if not sometimes stagnant) offense. They are physical and will put up a fight against anyone.

That defense is defined by their unwillingness to let teams run the ball. The Wildcats are very good at stopping explosive running plays, and they force their opponents to try and beat them through the air. The one exception here is the Georgia Bulldogs, AKA the No. 1 team in the nation with a line full of future NFL draftees. I don’t think Tennessee should try and replicate what they did.

One thing they are not particularly good at? Forcing turnovers. Kentucky has just three forced fumbles and three interceptions through eight games. Now that being said, turnovers are more of a luck-based stat then people think—but it can also indicate that a defense is either underperforming or overperforming based on how many they are getting. So if you view it from that lens, Kentucky’s defense is still in the top third nationally, despite not having the breaks go their way.

FPI (Football Power Index)

Tennessee Volunteers

Overall: 27th (Last Week: 22nd)
Offensive Efficiency: 33rd (Last Week: 29th)
Defensive Efficiency: 22nd (Last Week: 26th)
Special Teams Efficiency: 44th (Last Week: 98th)

One thing that fascinates me about the ESPN metrics is their lack of “stickiness”. This late into the season, most ratings systems wouldn’t have the swings you see in something like special teams efficiency. It’s a massive 54 spot difference! It makes me wonder how exactly ESPN’s formula works. Unfortunately, they are very tight lipped, so it will remain a mystery.

Kentucky Wildcats

Overall: 34th
Offensive Efficiency: 51st
Defensive Efficiency: 36th
Special Teams Efficiency: 55th

On the offensive side of the ball, Kentucky made a lot of moves after 2020. They got rid of offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and quarterbacks coach Darrin Hinshaw, and added running backs coach John Settle from Wisconsin. They also experienced a shakeup at wide receivers coach, after Jovon Bouknight was arrested for a DUI. He was replaced by team quality control analyst Scott Woodward. Tragically, Kentucky also lost their offensive line coach John Schlarman to cancer at just 45 years old.

Suffice to say, there has been a lot of change here for the Wildcats.

If you are a firm believer in the ratings systems, this year’s Kentucky offense has improved. Mainly thanks to their run game, which is bolstered by an almost elite offensive line. I will get into that more in the line section.

Where Kentucky seems to lag is the passing game. Starting quarterback Will Levis has his moments, but he has looked very pedestrian against defenses with a pulse. Against SEC opponents, Levis has thrown eight touchdowns with six interceptions, and averages just 142 yards per game. Even in their wins, it’s clear that he is a weaker link.

So far that has not resulted in anything too bad for the Wildcats. But with a Tennessee defense that has shown life, Levis will need to perform in a major way on Saturday.

Football Outsiders Line Stats

Tennessee Volunteers

Tennessee’s Power Success Rate took a noticeable dip in the past two weeks. At one point, they were in the top-20. Now they are outside the top-40. I think Tennessee’s fluctuations with their starters (thanks to injuries) is starting to catch up with them. They have been riding a pretty impressive level of success to this point, but they are still very much a team without depth. As the season goes on, expect some of these numbers to settle a bit lower than when they started.

One note about the defensive line: The poor ranking on the Passing Down Line Yards Per Carry means that, in passing situations, teams know they can get a good chunk of yardage on the Tennessee defense by running. That can mean a few things. Either Tennessee’s defense gets very predictable, and is fine letting teams try to run for first downs; or maybe teams know that Tennessee’s front seven is susceptible to giving up those crucial runs. I’d also imagine the quarterback scrambles that killed Tennessee against Ole Miss played a role.

Kentucky Wildcats

This is where I am truly impressed with the Wildcats. Their offensive line is no joke. They rank very highly in multiple areas, and aren’t really “bad” in any. Their run game is legit. Some of that is helped along by their star running back Chris Rodriguez Jr., and a lethal athlete in Kavosiey Smoke. Both guys are averaging over 5.0 yards per carry, and they’ve already combined for over 1,100 yards and six touchdowns. They’re not necessarily explosive—but they will kick you in the teeth on a down-to-down basis. Tennessee’s gameplan should be putting all their effort into stopping Kentucky at the point of attack, and forcing them to win with Levis.

On the flipside, Kentucky’s defensive line looks a lot like Tennessee’s. They are better overall, but the general picture is similar. They are a defensive line that does a lot of things at a decent level, while still showing a deficiency in a couple distinct areas. I don’t anticipate the Volunteers being able to run on them. The key here will be Hendon Hooker connecting on those deep shots they love to take. When he’s in the pocket on 1st or 2nd down, it looks like Kentucky won’t be able to get to him with any consistency. On 3rd down however, he could be in trouble (or 2nd-and-long, for that matter).

Predictions

SP+: Tennessee, 59% — Projected Score (29-25, Tennessee)

FPI: Tennessee, 51.2%

FEI: Kentucky, 56.3% — Projected Score (29.9-27.1, Kentucky)