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Staff picks: Tennessee vs. Kentucky

NCAA Football: Tennessee-Martin at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee’s march towards Atlanta and the College Football Playoff continues on Saturday night as the Volunteers are set to host Kentucky. These two schools put on a show last year in Lexington, with Tennessee coming out on top.

This time around, there’s much more on the line. The Vols are up to No. 3 in the polls, in full control of their destiny in the SEC East. No. 1 Georgia looms next, but Mark Stoops and his Wildcats have proven to be a tough out for just about everyone over the last few seasons.

Can Tennessee take care of business yet again? The predictions are in.

Terry: Tennessee 45, Kentucky 24

This look-ahead, let-down, trap game is so obvious that it’s not a trap at all. Tennessee essentially had the week off to sort of match Kentucky’s bye, giving the Volunteers a chance to get healthy once again in the secondary.

Josh Heupel has avoided let-down, look-ahead spots all season long. Neyland at night, all black dark mode uniforms, a ranked matchup? Tennessee will be ready to roll. And I think the Volunteers come out swinging. If Tennessee has one of those big first quarters, I’m not sure Kentucky will be able to hang on the scoreboard.

Kentucky is stingy defensively, but they haven’t been faced with a test like this. Vols will roll.

Clint: Tennessee 45, Kentucky 31

I’m bucking the systems again here and saying that Tennessee ends up covering.

Kentucky is a fine team that has been the beneficiary of a middling schedule. Yes, they have a very productive quarterback in Will Levis; yes, they have a stereotypically “gritty” Mark Stoops defense. But they are missing some of the offensive and defensive star power they’ve boasted in the past. This translates to a team that will be competitive against everyone they play, but won’t really be all that close to winning against the elite teams on the schedule.

Simply put, I think Tennessee’s offense will continue to have the same success against Kentucky that it has had against fellow SEC opponents. Kentucky’s secondary is going to get tested much, much more on Saturday then it has against other teams. I do think that the Wildcats will be able to move the ball a fair amount, simply because Levis is still a decent enough quarterback. However, I don’t think Kentucky will be much of a threat by the time the fourth quarter rolls around. Chris Rodriguez Jr. barrels in for a late score that makes this one look closer than it really was.

Nick: Tennessee 35, Kentucky 28

Everything in me wants to pick UK here, just because I am the walking manifestation of a Battered Vol. The Piper is coming, and he must be paid. Where is that other shoe, and when is it going to drop?

Kentucky coming off a bye week only deepens the cynicism that lives in my soul, as Will Levis has likely gotten healthier, and the UK staff has had an extra week to decide how they’re gonna try to hinder Tennessee’s offense.

I feel like some fans are overlooking this game because it’s against Kentucky, and because the game’s a night home game. On the other hand, from the ‘Cats’ perspective, this is the biggest game of the season for them. They would DELIGHT in being the turd in Tennessee’s punch-bowl season.

The Vols need a big game from both lines — especially on defense... here’s looking directly at you, Tyler Baron and Byron Young. Don’t let UK get into third-and-shorts and then hit big plays over the top via play-action passes. I imagine Kentucky tries to muck this thing up, and the Vols need to cut down on the penalties to avoid helping the Wildcats dictate the style of this game.

But this whole offense’s approach, to literally everything (especially from QB Hendon Hooker) — via the confidence this staff has instilled in them and the proof they’ve seen play out this season, is enough for me to pick Tennessee to win the game.

Matthew: Tennessee 36, Kentucky 20

The talk all week has been how Kentucky is able to slow down Tennessee due to their matchups and style of play, but Tennessee’s defense lines up very well against what Kentucky has struggled to do on offense.

Kentucky ranks dead last in the conference in yards per carry despite 36 attempts per game. They’ll want to get Chris Rodriguez going, but Tennessee’s run defense is very good as well as their ability to get after the QB. Will Levis is under constant duress.

Styles make fights, and I think this fight favors Tennessee, especially at home.