Fearless Prediction: Tennessee vs. Kentucky
The Kentucky game has been the death knell of Tennessee coaches for approximately 35 years.
The Vols have only lost to UK twice since 1984. But boy oh boy have those losses been doozies.
In 2011, the Vols had their 26-game winning streak over the Wildcats snapped. That 10-7 defeat kept the Vols from making a bowl game appearance. It was so devastating that 2nd-year head coach Derek Dooley nearly lost his job, and likely would have had new athletics director Dave Hart been on the job for more than a few months. Dooley was fired late in the following season.
In 2017, the Vols dominated Kentucky in every category but the scoresheet. The 29-26 defeat led to the end of the Butch Jones era only 2 weeks later.
Those losses stand out so vividly because they are so rare. Tennessee beaten Kentucky when they’ve had the best players and Tennessee has beaten Kentucky when they haven’t had the best players. Tennessee has won in blowout fashion, and Tennessee has won in the final seconds.
Two years ago, the Wildcats went 10-3, finished ranked 12th in the nation, and beat Penn State in the Citrus Bowl. It was one of the best seasons in program history. That same year, the Vols went 5-7. So what happened when these teams met in 2018 in Knoxville? Tennessee won convincingly 24-7.
What I’m trying to say here is that Tennessee simply doesn’t lose to Kentucky. And when they do, Vols fans batten down the hatches and spread rumors about Jon Gruden coming to Knoxville.
Kentucky was a sleeper pick in the SEC before the season began. But losses to Auburn and Ole Miss squashed those hopes. They did get in the win column with a 24-2 victory over Mississippi State, but so far this doesn’t look like anything more than a 5-5 type of team.
Despite the win over MSU, the UK offense really struggled, gaining a paltry 157 yards. Terry Wilson only completed 8 passes for 73 yards. He also led the Wildcats with 50 yards rushing. Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood got some playing time as well, so Tennessee is preparing to see both quarterbacks Saturday afternoon.
Kentucky linebacker Jamin Davis was the best player on the field in that game, leading all defenders with 11 tackles, while adding an interception.
While UK comes to Neyland Stadium on a winning note, the Vols are still licking their wounds following a 2nd-half shellacking at the hands of Georgia in Athens. The loss was an unwelcome dose of reality for a program that still needs to take a few steps forward if they want to compete in the SEC East.
Perhaps the most concerning issue in that game was the performance of Tennessee’s vaunted offensive line. They were manhandled by Georgia’s front 7, sacking Vols quarterback Jarrett Guarantano 5 times and forcing 3 turnovers in the 2nd half (including a fumble return for a touchdown). Tennessee ran for a grand total of negative 1 yard as well.
Yes, the UGA defense has NFL guys all over the place, but so does the UT offensive line. If the “TVA” doesn’t get back to bullying opponents, it’s going to be a rough final 7 games of the regular season.
Despite getting beaten in coverage a couple of times, Tennessee sophomore Henry To’o To’o had a game high 11 tackles, including 2 for a loss against Georgia. Through 3 games he’s been the Vols best player and I don’t expect that to change Saturday. You might remember that in last year’s Kentucky game, To’o To’o suffered a dislocated knee cap, but only missed a few plays. It’s that kind of toughness the Vols need as the schedule kicks up a notch with Alabama coming to town next week.
But we aren’t looking ahead. It’s Kentucky week.
With a reduced docket, Tennessee will be hard pressed to match the 8 victories it picked up a year ago. But to come close, they need to win the games on their schedule that they are expected to win, and then pull an upset or two along the way. Kentucky is a team the Vols are expected to beat. It was that way under Phillip Fulmer, who went 16-0 against the Cats. Even Lane Kiffin won this game in his lone meeting while at Tennessee.
If the Vols lose, the grumblings will be loud in Big Orange Country. But this is still Tennessee and it’s still Kentucky… and we know what happens an overwhelming majority of the time in this game.
So I’m not going to overthink it.
Fearless Prediction time …
Tennessee 24, Kentucky 13