For both Tennessee and Kentucky, it’s back to the grind this weekend. The Wildcats are coming off of a bye week and the Volunteers got a chance to settle down and regroup after the Alabama win, beating up on Tennessee-Martin last weekend.
Tennessee, now all the way up to No. 3 in the country remains undefeated. Kentucky, back to No 19 in the polls, bounced back two weeks ago with a big win over Mississippi State. The win ended a two-game skid for Kentucky, with those losses coming at Ole Miss and then at home against South Carolina.
Big time draft prospect Will Levis was unavailable for that South Carolina loss, but he was able to return against Mississippi State. Now with a week off to heal, Levis is ready to attack a shaky Tennessee secondary.
“Will’s got great arm talent and can push the ball vertically and horizontally,” Josh Heupel said of the Kentucky signal caller. “You’ve got to defend all the field zones when you’re playing against him. He’s a really good decision-maker and I think has complete command of what they’re doing offensively. I think he does a lot of things in the run game for them, too, on early downs, but does a great job on play-action pass and he does have some weapons out on the perimeter. You definitely don’t want to let those guys get started.”
Levis has thrown for 1,635 yards and 13 touchdowns so far this season. He’s a guy with NFL traits, and the league is going to like his experience in a pro-style offense. The Levis draft hype is puzzling to some, but it makes a lot of sense when you consider the scheme. He worked under Rams offensive coordinator Liam Coen in 2021, and now plays in Rich Scangarello’s offense — another NFL veteran coach.
“At some times, they could have three or four tight ends on the field, so they’re very multiple in their formations, and they’re gonna really challenge your run fits,” Tennessee linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary said. “Your gap integrity is gonna be very, very big this week. Obviously, they have a pro-style offense. Their coordinator came from the San Francisco 49ers, and they’re gonna give you a lot of different formations.
“Everybody has kind of gone to the spread philosophy, and even tempo, like we run on offense. They’re kind of the anti-tempo, where they’re gonna obviously take their time, get aligned and run their plays at their own tempo with, obviously, 12 personnel, and even 13 personnel with three tight ends on the field, which is different.
“But it works for them.”
Kentucky’s catalyst remains Chris Rodriguez Jr. The senior running back returned to the lineup earlier this month, and has put up 395 yards in just three games. Rodriguez went off against Mississippi State, running for 197 yards and two touchdowns.
Rodriguez faces Tennessee’s eighth ranked rushing defense on Saturday.
The Wildcats need that run game to get going to take some pressure off of Levis, and to set up some play-action looks. The Tennessee defense has its own issues, but they can flat get after the quarterback. Tim Banks isn’t afraid to bring six or seven at you, either. Kentucky’s pass protection has been particularly lacking this year.
Tennessee ranks 42nd nationally in sacks per game. Kentucky ranks 125th nationally in sacks allowed, surrendering 3.71 sacks per game.
It will be a different look than Alabama gave Tennessee, but the objective will remain the same for the Volunteers — attack.
The contrast in styles can’t be much more obvious this week. We know Tennessee plays fast offensively and they don’t need much time to light up the scoreboard, but Kentucky plays particularly slow. Obviously the Wildcats will need to cash in on their long drives, but their objective is clear — Keep the Tennessee offense the field.
Kentucky ranks 7th in time of possession. Tennessee ranks 122nd in time of possession.
In a similar style of game, Kentucky held Ole Miss to just 22 points. However, the Wildcats only scored 19 points in the loss. The Rebels operate similarly to Tennessee, so the Kentucky staff has experience in this style of matchup already this season.
Tennessee opened as a 13 point favorite on Sunday, and that number has since come down to 12 as some money has come in on the Kentucky side. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. ET on ESPN Saturday night.