5 reasons Kentucky could upset Tennessee
When a team has lost 30 of the past 31 games in a series, one of the biggest hurdles is a belief that the repeated loser can turn into a winner. But Kentucky has defied expectations all season and has a puncher’s chance at a meaningful upset of Tennessee in Knoxville on Saturday.
Here are five reasons the Wildcats could pull off the upset.
1. Pounding on the ground: Coming into the season, Tennessee’s ground game of Jalen Hurd, Alvin Kamara and Joshua Dobbs was expected to dominate. Kentucky’s star back, Boom Williams, was talented, but did not seem likely to match UT’s ground game.
At the moment, Williams is No. 4 in the SEC in rushing yardage (898), freshman UK back Benny Snell is No. 7 (775 yards), and UT’s stop rusher, Jalen Hurd, is No. 20 (451 yards) and no longer on the team.
Kamara is banged up and Dobbs has been inconsistent. So far this year, Kentucky is averaging 215.8 yards per game — almost 50 yards per game more than Tennessee.
The last time in the series when UK had a sizable rushing advantage over UT? That would be 2011, when the Wildcats outrushed the Vols, 202-61. That is also UK’s only win in the series in the past 31 years.
2. The M.A.S.H. unit: Tennessee has been critically injured over the course of the season. RB Kamara and DB Cam Sutton are both trying to get back into action, but UT has lost many, many stars. LB Darin Kirkland, Jr. has missed most of the season, and fellow LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin had a season-ending injury. At least four significant offensive linemen have sustained injuries, and Tennessee’s defensive line depth has been severely hampered by health concerns. Kentucky has a few injury issues, most notably pocket QB Drew Barker, who appears to be gone for the season, but is comparatively much healthier than Tennessee, which could make a difference late in the game.
3. Time of possession: Kentucky’s defense was abysmal early but has generally shown consistent improvement over the course of the season. A hidden key is keeping that defense off the field. Aided by its ground game, Kentucky likes to win the time of possession battle. The Wildcats are 5-1 when they do and 0-3 when they don’t. This is significant because Tennessee averages under 27 minutes per game of possession and only twice this year (record 1-1) have the Vols won the time of possession battle.
4. A big kick? Tennessee’s special teams unit has generally outperformed Kentucky’s, but one pivotal area in which the Wildcats have an advantage is a long field goal. Vols kicker Aaron Medley is very solid from close, but doesn’t have a good record on long-range kicks. For his three-year career, Medley is just 7-for-22 on kicks of 40 yards or longer. His career long is just 47 yards.
On the other side, UK kicker Austin MacGinnis made a game-winning 51-yarder against Mississippi State a couple weeks ago, and hit a 54-yarder in his last game in Knoxville. In his career, MacGinnis is 16-for-24 from 40+ yards, and is even 4-for-7 from 50+ yards. A big kick could be the difference, and that favors UK.
5. Big Mo: A month ago, when Tennessee was 5-0, winning this game was unthinkable for UK. But in losses to Texas A&M, Alabama, and South Carolina, the Vols (and particularly their depth issues) have been exposed. Meanwhile, Kentucky had a tough loss to UGA last week, but otherwise has held its own, winning three one-possession SEC games this year.
For UT, not running away with the East is a borderline disgrace; for UK, having the chance to be a factor in the East is a giant bonus. Don’t underestimate momentum on Saturday.