Each week the two sports editors and football beat writers, Ryan Crews and Ryan Schumpert, will give their keys to Tennessee’s weekly matchup and prediction for the matchup.
We move on to Kentucky.
Keys to the game
1. Minimize mistakes on offence
Tennessee’s offense started strong last week but once Georgia increased their defensive efforts, then the Vols offense was very mistake-prone in the second half.
Drops plagued the receivers and the offensive line seemed to struggle to contain the Bulldog pass rush.
The receivers are a young unit without much experience so to have a game like that against such a high-level opponent is not too much of a surprise. This past weekend can be a valuable learning experience for those guys.
The offensive line is in a different place. This past Saturday was a let down after two weeks of strong play by a group with a lot of experience. It was almost as if the talking and nicknames put a target on their backs for opposing defenders.
And all the mistakes elsewhere ending up affecting an already inconsistent quarterback and making his job even harder. If the Vols want to execute this weekend, they must clean up mistakes across the board.
2. Cut down on defensive penalties
Penalties were a large factor of the struggles for Tennessee’s defense last week. While there were some questionable calls, others were blatant and unneeded.
Jaylen McCollough had the most questionable call, on a pass interference that was a bang-bang play where the Vols defensive back was playing the ball but got there just a second or two early. This is an example of the kind of penalties that Jeremy Pruitt can live with, but the ones that Tennessee needs to clean up are the offsides and needless targeting calls like Deandre Johnson’s.
Johnson’s hit had no benefit to the Vols and needlessly took him out of the game. Not to say it was wrongly called, it was as clear as the rule gets; it didn’t help the play in any manner as the pass was long gone and the hit had no effect on the play other than to extend Georgia’s drive.
Tennessee needs to eliminate the careless and selfish penalties this weekend. Otherwise, the Vols could hand the win to an otherwise inferior opponent.
1. Force Kentucky in third-and-long
Kentucky wants to run the ball. It's the staple of the Wildcats offense. In Jeremy Pruitt’s first year, Tennessee upset No. 11 Kentucky, 24-7, by loading the box and forcing Terry Wilson to beat them passing. The Wildcats couldn’t run and Darrell Taylor recorded four sacks as the Vols defense dominated.
Kentucky’s average third down distance was over 5 yards and included seven third down 10 yards or more, effectively shutting down Kentucky’s limited offense.
Last season Kentucky dominated the first half and the time of possession but Tennessee’s defense was able to piece together stops against a Kentucky offense that ran it 64 times.
If Tennessee can limit the success of Kentucky’s offense on first and second down, especially running the ball, Kentucky’s offense will likely be severely limited.
That’s big for not also stopping Kentucky but limiting its time of possession. Time of possession can be a pretty meaningless stat but with Tennessee appearing better than Kentucky through three games, 6 points according to Vegas, shortening the game could be an effective strategy for Kentucky to pull the upset in Knoxville.
2. Red zone offense success
Okay, so I’m running this key back from last week. Last week I talked about the importance of Jarrett Guarantano in the red zone due to Georgia’s stout run defense. Tennessee never even got in the red zone in Athens, instead scoring on defense and a pair of fades to Josh Palmer, the second of which may have been the best throw of Guarantano's career.
This week, the focus is back on the offense as a whole, and especially the offensive line.
Tennessee’s offensive line was dominated a week ago and Saturday is their first chance to get back on the right track. Tennessee needs them to be good, especially in the red zone.
Saturday’s game will likely have less possessions than any other game they play this season. To effectively control and put Kentucky away, that means Brent Cimaglia breaking out of his early season slump, one-of-three on field goals through three games, and Tennessee’s offense getting touchdowns in the red zone.
Spread: Tennessee -6
Over/Under: 45.5 points
Prediction: Tennessee 25.75 Kentucky 19.75
The sense of urgency is not the same as last year, as last year’s matchup saw the Vols in the midst of a bowl-eligibility push. This year, the situation is also a bit different due to Tennessee coming off of a loss as opposed to the two-game winning streak with which they entered the last matchup.
It will be interesting to see the Vols respond on the rebound from last week’s loss. Of course Kentucky has had its fair share of struggles this year, but the Wildcats will be going all out for their first win in Knoxville since 1984.
While Kentucky’s performance has been a bit of a mixed bag, I like the way that Tennessee matches up. I think the Vols come out and try to make a statement win over the Wildcats.
Tennessee 28 Kentucky 14
This week has had a strange feel to it throughout Knoxville. There doesn’t seem to be a ton of excitement after last week's letdown. Combine that with a noon local time start against a slight underdog and you’d usually have the perfect formula for a road upset.
However, with 20% capacity in the stands I’m not sure how much that holds true this season. I also don’t think Tennessee’s been looking past or not taking Kentucky seriously.
I have my questions about how much Kentucky can move the ball with consistency, especially after Tennessee’s strong run defense a week ago. I don’t know what to make of Kentucky’s defense. They gave up over 300 yards passing against Ole Miss only to turn around and intercept Mississippi State’s K.J. Costello six times.
Nevertheless, I think Tennessee is the better team and I think they’ll be ready enough to play to get the win. What I don’t know is if they play clean enough football to handle Kentucky like they did Missouri.
Tennessee 27, Kentucky 17