Who has the edge? Kentucky vs. Tennessee
Given Kentucky’s surprising turnaround this season — and contention for the East title — Tennessee’s dominance in the series is a bit on the back burner this week.
Both teams’ running games have gone through a dramatic shift since the summer. Tennessee lost Jalen Hurd to transfer and Kentucky saw the emergence of Benny Snell Jr. to an already well-stocked backfield.
But they’re both trying to shake off recent losses to stay in the East hunt.
Who has the edge Saturday in Knoxville? We break down the battles.
When Kentucky has the ball
Stephen Johnson vs. Tennessee pass defense: Johnson is coming off one of his poorest games since taking over seven games ago when he went 10-for-20 for 103 yards and an interception in a loss to Georgia. Normally a running threat, he also had five rushes for negative 5 yards.
That dropped him to 5-2 since taking the majority of the snaps in a game. Overall, he’s piloted the offense well, but he has been inconsistent at times. He passed for 49 yards in the win over Vanderbilt and 292 the next game, a win over Mississippi State. He lost two fumbles in the Mississippi State and Alabama games. Overall, he’s had nine turnovers and eight touchdowns. The Vols have allowed fewer than 200 yards passing in three consecutive games and are fifth in the SEC in passing defense.
Stanley Boom Williams/Benny Snell Jr. vs. run defense: On a single drive against Georgia, Snell nearly pulled Kentucky to victory. He finished with 114 yards and two TDs. That elevated him into a share of the SEC lead in rushing touchdowns (10) and he’s the only non-QB to reach that number.
Snell’s season has taken some spotlight from Williams, who is fourth in the SEC in rushing yards per game. Williams’ big game came at Missouri two weeks ago with 182 yards. But otherwise, in three of his past five games, he’s rushed for 77 yards or fewer. In its past three conference games, Tennessee has allowed at least 158 rushing yards, including being torched against Texas A&M and Alabama for 353 and 409 yards and four touchdowns in each game.
Jeff Badet/Garrett Johnson/C.J. Conrad vs. pass defense: Just as Johnson has struggled with consistency, the Wildcats’ receivers have struggled to make a splash this season. Conrad has one catch in the past three games, and has only one game this season with more than 26 receiving yards. Baden leads the team in receiving, but had just two catches last week. He did have three TDs combined the previous two games. Johnson hasn’t caught a TD pass since the season opener, and has yet to eclipse 40 yards in a second game.
Tennessee defensive back Cameron Sutton is due back this week following a fractured ankle in September. He was a preseason All-SEC selection.
When Tennessee has the ball
Joshua Dobbs vs. Kentucky pass defense: Dobbs completed his first 11 passes last week as the Vols got back on track, and he finished 12-for-13 for 183 yards and three TDs. He’s still looking to string together back-to-back solid games; he has three games with two interceptions. But he also has four games with at least three TDs.
Kentucky has played well against South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State, but struggled the past two weeks, and allowed 229 yards and two TDs to Missouri, and 245 yards and a TD against Georgia.
John Kelly/Alvin Kamara vs. run defense: Kelly has put up 198 yards and a TD on 21 carries in the past two games. In the first post-Jalen Hurd era game, Kelly’s highlight was a 73-yard score, Tennessee’s longest run from scrimmage since 2006. Kamara is expected to return after being out since a knee injury against Alabama. Despite missing two games, he leads the team in all-purpose yards with 773. He has 64 carries for 313 yards and three TDs.
After some improvement in the middle of the season, Kentucky’s run defense has reverted to its early-season struggles. It has allowed five TDs in the past three games. In two of those games, the opponent rushed for at least 215 yards.
Josh Malone/Jauan Jennings vs. pass defense: Malone had his third five-catch game last week, but he has caught at least two passes in every game. He is tied for second in the SEC with seven TD receptions. Jennings also has a similar two-catch streak, though he didn’t do it in the season opener. But he had just five yards last week. Kamara has caught 22 passes for 260 yards and three TDs.
Kentucky has a capable secondary, but will be tested more than it has in recent games.
The Vols lost one of the best kickoff returners in the country when Evan Berry was lost for the season with a knee injury.
Badet, meanwhile, is fourth in the league at 23.6 yards per return. Kamara’s return also is a boost to the punt return game. Tennessee’s Trevor Daniel, meanwhile, is fourth in the league in punting at 44.4 yards on average. Each team’s kicker, Aaron Medley and Austin MacGinnis have made at least 72 percent of their attempts.