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No. 18 Tennessee Volunteers vs. Kentucky Wildcats: Game Preview

A tough Kentucky squad is up next.

Tennessee looks to get back on track against Kentucky.
| Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

The 18th-ranked Tennessee Volunteers (2-1) experienced its first loss of the season thanks to a disastrous second half against the No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs (3-0). Now, the Kentucky Wildcats (1-2) come to Neyland Stadium in search of climbing to .500 on the season.

It took a goal-line stand to beat the Cats last year. What will it take this time around?


Overview

  • All-time series record: Tennessee has dominated the series with an 81-25-9 record since 1893.
  • Largest margin of victory: Kentucky actually owns this record with its 56-0 beatdown of the Vols in the series’ first-ever meeting.
  • Interesting series fact: Kentucky has not beaten Tennessee in Knoxville since 1984.
  • 2020 offensive and defensive rankings: Tennessee is currently ranked 11th in total offense (11th passing, 10th rushing) and fifth in total defense (5th passing, 8th rushing ). Kentucky is 10th in total offense (13th passing, 1st rushing) and fourth in total defense (8th passing, 3rd rushing).
NCAA Football: Tennessee at Georgia
Jarrett Guarantano should have a bounce back game against the Wildcats.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

What To Watch For

  • Tennessee’s rebound: How will the Vols respond after last week’s loss? This isn’t your dad’s Kentucky team. Mark Stoops has turned the Wildcats into a solid program that will beat you if you don’t play your best game. This team seems to have adopted Jeremy Pruitt’s toughness, but we’ll see for sure on Saturday.
  • Kentucky’s rushing attack: The Wildcats lead the SEC with 212.3 rushing yards per game, average the third-highest yards per carry (5.0) and have scored the second-most rushing touchdowns in the SEC (8). Dual-threat quarterback Terry Wilson leads the way with 221 yards and is what makes the engine run. We’ve seen Pruitt corral Kentucky’s offense before. Can he do it again?
  • The Vols’ rushing attack: It was non-existent last week and when I say that, I mean it in a literal fashion. Tennessee had (-1) rushing yard against Georgia last week. That can’t happen again this week. Hopefully Tennessee puts away it’s Mississippi State-style run game and turns back into the team we saw during the first two weeks of the season.
  • A defensive game: Kentucky holds the SEC’s fourth overall defense. Tennessee is currently fifth. Kentucky’s bread and butter is its third-ranked run defense while Tennessee’s strength on defense is the secondary. Will we see a lot of defense or will both offenses find ways to accumulate yards and points?
  • CB Bryce Thompson vs. WR Josh Ali: The senior receiver is having a really good season. He’s currently ninth in the SEC in receiving yards and leads Kentucky in that department. The Vols can’t let the Wildcats become two-dimensional on Saturday and this matchup will go a long way in determining whether or not that happens.

Impact Players

Tennessee Volunteers

  • QB Jarrett Guarantano: He looked very good in the first half, but we saw some of the same old tendencies in the second half that have hampered him in the past. Last week’s loss was a team loss, but Guarantano needs to rebound this week.
  • RB Ty Chandler: Someone, anyone needs to step up this week and provide a spark on the ground. Chandler is a good place to start.
  • WR Josh Palmer: Boy, he’s off to a great start this year and is really showing that he can be the No. 1 receiver in this offense. Kentucky’s secondary is not what we thought it would be this year, so expect Palmer to make some plays on Saturday.
  • All defensive linemen: Just like the running back position, someone needs to get a push up front this week. Kentucky’s offensive line is no joke and you know they’re going to want to run the ball. A lot.
  • All linebackers except Henry To’o To’o and Deandre Johnson: The other guys need to step it up because Tennessee’s second level can’t perform at a high level all year without more contributions. To’o To’o and Johnson are great, but they can’t carry the defense all year long.
  • CB Bryce Thompson: As I mentioned earlier, he’ll be responsible for shutting down Kentucky’s biggest threat in the passing game.
NCAA Football: Kentucky at Auburn
Terry Wilson is an underrated passer.
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky Wildcats

  • QB Terry Wilson: Everyone remembers Kentucky’s quarterback injury history from a year ago. So far, that road has been avoided in 2020. Wilson has been inconsistent, but he can make plays with his arms and legs, which always poses a problem.
  • RB Asim Rose: Christopher Rodriguez Jr. has more rushing yards, but Rose has three less carries on the year and is a better receiver than Rodriguez. Don’t be surprised if he makes a couple of big plays out of the backfield.
  • WR Josh Ali: He leads the Wildcats with 18 receptions and 208 receiving yards, but has yet to score a touchdown this year. To put into context how much Ali means to the passing attack: The next-closest receiver in terms of receptions has six and the next-closest receiver in terms of passing yards has 54.
  • LB Jamin Davis: Kentucky has a bunch of talented linebackers and Davis is certainly one of them. He leads the team in total tackles, is tied for first on the team with one interception, and is second on the team with one sack.
  • OLB Jamar Watson: This is where Kentucky’s pass rush starts. If the Vols can neutralize Watson, then the offense should have a solid day.
  • S Kelvin Joseph: One of the highest-rated prospects to ever sign with the Wildcats, Joseph has been disappointing through two games. He was a former top-5 prospect, however, so the talent is there. Tennessee needs to avoid awaking the sleeping giant.

Injuries To Monitor (non-COVID related)

Tennessee

  • OT Jahmir Johnson: He practiced on Tuesday and will be a game-time decision, per Pruitt on Wednesday.
  • OG Jerome Carvin: It’s basically the same with Carvin as it is with Johnson. He practiced on Tuesday and will be a game-time decision, as well.

Kentucky

  • WR Bryce Oliver: Oliver has missed the first three games due to a hamstring injury and it’s uncertain if he’ll play this week.
  • G Marquan McCall: The nose tackle nicknamed “Bully” missed last week’s game, but per Stoops, he’ll return this week.
  • LB/DL/DE Josh Paschal: The guy who does everything on defense left last week’s game with a knee sprain and it’s unclear if he’ll go against the Vols.
NCAA Football: Mississippi at Kentucky
Tennessee needs to contain Josh Ali.
Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Game Outlook

It feels like Tennessee ran into a buzz saw last week in Athens. The team we saw in that second half is not who this team is. Georgia is just simply better and there’s a reason why the Bulldogs are the third-ranked team in the country.

Kentucky isn’t Georgia. Not in the slightest. The Wildcats are an opponent more on the Vols’ level. While they certainly pose problems, Tennessee should win this game.

Look for the Vols to attack this struggling secondary. There will also be extra emphasis on the ground game after last week’s abysmal performance and the offensive line will be looking to make its presence felt, as well.

Tennessee loses this game if it allows Kentucky to do its thing, which is allowing Wilson to make plays with his legs and attack the seams. The Vols have struggled zone reads, RPOs, and just throws over the middle in general. If they don’t get their act together, Kentucky could certainly exploit them to the point where Tennessee loses the game.

But Tennessee is the better team and it will show through by the end of the day.

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