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Tennessee’s key to victory over Kentucky? Bottling up Ray Davis

The Volunteers can’t let Kentucky dictate the pace.

Missouri v Kentucky Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Tennessee is set to hit the road again this weekend, heading to Lexington to face the Kentucky Wildcats. The Volunteers are looking to flush last weekend, where they blew a 13 point advantage to Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The second half completely unraveled, and Tennessee is going to have to find a way to put that behind them here.

At this point, we know what Kentucky is. They’re big and physical. They’re going to play defense, and they’re going to run the football. The Wildcats went to the transfer portal during the offseason to add some firepower to that rushing attack, grabbing Ray Davis from Vanderbilt. Through seven games with Kentucky, Davis is currently 12th in the NCAA in rushing yards.

Davis is having a career year, averaging seven yards per carry, which is up from his 4.5 yards per carry last year with Vandy. The 5-10, 216 pound senior back has 781 yards on the ground, with eight touchdowns on the year.

“Yeah, it starts with the five guys up front,” Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel said of Kentucky’s run game. “Big, strong physical. Their tight ends do a really good job in it, as well as some of the condensed sets. Wide receivers are involved in critical blocks too.

“At the end of the day for (Davis), he does a great job pressing the line of scrimmage. He uses the five guys up front extremely well. He plays with great pad level. If you’re not in a good fundamental position to tackle him, he’s gonna run through that stuff, too. So huge to us to win up front. The second and third levels of our defense have to do a great job all night, too.”

Davis was able to power Kentucky to their biggest win of the season a month ago. He ran wild on the Florida Gators, putting up 280 yards on 26 carries, scoring three times.

Davis will face Tennessee’s 24th ranked rush defense on Saturday night. Considering Devin Leary’s slow start, bottling up Davis will be the absolute key to a Tennessee victory in Lexington. Kentucky is ranked 103th overall in the NCAA in passing yards, so I’m guessing Tim Banks and company are going to load the box and dare Leary to beat them.

Kentucky wants to play keep away from Tennessee’s up-tempo attack, and running the ball is going to be the only way they can do that.

“Well, at the end of the day you understand the flow of this football game and they tend to snap it a little bit slower than we do, from the whistle to the next play,” Heupel said. “The number of possessions in this game, you gotta plan that they’re gonna be fewer just because of the pace of play on the other side of it when that happens, and it doesn’t matter because whether it’s a 13-possession game or a 10-possession game, you have to maximize your opportunities and that’s always true in this game. But it is certainly gonna be true in this one because of style of play and on both sides of it. Getting off the field on third down, your special teams play and offensively your efficiency and production.”

That clash of styles didn’t go Kentucky’s way last year in Knoxville. Tennessee smoked Kentucky’s “real football” approach to the tune of 44-6. While Hendon Hooker and the offense stole the show, it was the Tennessee defense holding Kentucky to 107 yards rushing on 36 carries. If they can replicate that performance, you have to feel good about the Vols’. chances.

Tennessee remains a 3.5 point favorite here, according to DraftKings Sportsbook. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.

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