It’s beginning to look a lot like Halloween time in Tennessee. Fresh off a home victory against an outgunned UT-Martin team, the No. 3 Tennessee Volunteers play host once again. This time, it’s against the No. 19 Kentucky Wildcats, looking to spoil Tennessee’s undefeated record. The Volunteers have already announced a “dark mode’ black and orange uniform combination for the game, leading to a social media frenzy. A home game, against a ranked rival team, with new uniforms? I doubt that motivation will be an issue.
We took a break from the Stat Dive series last week to bring you a more comprehensive look at the offensive and defensive lines. You can read that piece here if you want some deeper analysis about the trends on both sides of the ball, and if they will stay that way. Now, we go back to our regularly scheduled programming.
These Kentucky Wildcats are largely the same group as the last season’s Kentucky Wildcats that brought Tennessee down to the wire in a 45-42 nailbiter. So can we expect a similar game on Saturday? Or, is there maybe more uncertainty with Kentucky than their record might show?
FEI (Fremeau Efficiency Index)
Frankly, you’re not going to get much analysis out of me when it comes to Tennessee’s numbers. Playing a team like UT-Martin tells you nothing. Everything we knew after the Alabama game still applies. Tennessee’s offense has maintained its top-10 status, while its defense has somewhat stabilized in the 40s.
For the defense to improve, it actually doesn’t require as much as you might think. The Volunteers are going to be facing some weaker offenses in upcoming contests, and they are also getting starting cornerback Kamal Hadden back from injury. I would not expect a big jump in Tennessee’s defense— but I am actually optimistic on how they’ll close out the regular season.
The Kentucky offense—for better or for worse—flows through quarterback Will Levis. Tennessee fans got a taste of what Levis can bring last season, when he threw for 372 yards and racked up five total touchdowns in a bona fide shootout against Tennessee. That also included a pick six in favor of the Volunteers. That same Will Levis is present this season. He can move the offense downfield, but he continues to have some self destructive tendencies. In six games of action, Levis has five interceptions and two lost fumbles. One of those fumbles ended their chance at beating Ole Miss. He is what he is at this point. He’s a gunslinger who can frustrate you all day long if you cannot get in his face. But if you can…you might get an extra possession out of it.
That being said, the Wildcats have a very intriguing set of offensive options outside Levis. Senior running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. is back from an early season suspension, and he has not missed a beat so far. In just three games, he already has over 400 combined yards and three touchdowns, including a 5.5 yards per carry mark. They’ve also got two freshmen at wide receiver who have impressed in Barion Brown and Dane Key. They’ve got some real electric playmakers. So why aren’t they better on offense? You’ll see why in the offensive line section.
FPI (Football Power Index)
Offensive Efficiency: 3rd
Defensive Efficiency: 40th
Special Teams Efficiency: 12th
Offensive Efficiency: 64th
Defensive Efficiency: 7th
Special Teams Efficiency: 111th
All systems agree that the Wildcats wield a formidable defense. A lot of it stems from their defensive line. While Kentucky might not have the star power they did a couple seasons ago, they are deep on the defensive line. There’s a lot of names that Tennessee fans would recognize from past recruiting battles. Guys like Justin Rogers, Octavius Oxendine, Tre’Vonn Rybka, etc. Kentucky also got star edge rusher J.J. Weaver back from an injury that kept him out of two games. It is a very tough task to wear them down. They’ve got a ton of guys that can come in and perform well.
The weaknesses start to arise in the secondary. Cornerback and safety were two of their weaker position groups coming out of fall camp, and it has largely stayed that way as the season has progressed. While it is not at the level of Tennessee’s situation, you don’t get the sense that Kentucky has a lock down corner they can look at for shutting down a star wide receiver. They’ll play physical…but I’m not sure they’re going to be able to keep stride.
I think they might be in for a rude awakening against Tennessee. The best quarterback they have faced this year might be…Spencer Rattler? Kentucky’s secondary has not been consistently tested down the field. Some of that is their defensive philosophy. But some of it is also a byproduct of the competition they have faced. If they can’t get to Hendon Hooker, chances are he will sit comfortably in the pocket and find the open receivers that have been present all season.
Football Outsiders Line Stats
Yikes. I mentioned in previous articles that Kentucky had an issue keeping Will Levis upright. Frankly, I didn’t know it was this bad. There are only 131 teams in the system itself, so Kentucky’s offensive line is in the company of teams like New Mexico, Colorado State, and Massachusetts. The fact that Kentucky has been able to grind their way to a 5-2 record—despite being unable to protect their quarterback—is actually pretty astounding. Maybe Levis isn’t as overhyped as some might believe (“some” also includes me, for what it’s worth.)
If there’s any consolation for Kentucky fans, it does seem like the Wildcats figured some things out against Mississippi State. They only recorded one sack in the entire game. That’s by far the fewest that Kentucky has surrendered all season. Now, is that the start of improvement? Or, is it just a fluke?
Of particular interest is Kentucky’s defensive line. It’s rare that you see this much disparity between a run defense and pass rush, but it does exist. The Wildcats have shown that they can make it difficult on the ground for most opposing offenses—but they have not shown that they can get to the quarterback in a meaningful way.
FPI: Tennessee, 82.9%
FEI: Tennessee, 78% — Projected Score (37.1-25.5, Tennessee)
SP+: Tennessee, 69% — Projected Score (33-24, Tennessee)