Over the course of the last three games, we’ve seen the Vols go up against two of the nation’s best teams, and the Vols have the statistical bruises to prove it. This week, Tennessee gets a bit of a reprieve, as they trade elite opponents for a merely good one. Here’s what the NCAA statistics say the Kentucky Wildcats do well, what they don’t do well, and what it all might mean for Tennessee when they meet up with them Saturday night in Lexington.
National Unit Rankings
Offensive observations. Honestly, I’m kind of surprised to learn that Kentucky’s total offense is ranked 112th in the nation. They’re vulnerable to sacks, they don’t gain a lot of yards either on the ground or through the air. Somehow, they seem to be good in the red zone, though, and they’re fairly safe with the ball in the air. Overall, this does not look like a particularly frightening offense.
Defensive observations. Well, this looks better than last week. Kentucky is fairly stout against the run, but other than that, they’re middle-of-the-road to just plain bad. Honestly, it looks like the opportunity for the Vols here is in the passing game, if only they can manage a passing attack.
Special teams, Turnovers, and Penalties observations. Kentucky is extremely good on special teams and very good in the discipline categories of penalties and turnovers. They’re good returning kicks and punts and at covering both punts and kicks. And they do not give you things like free yards from penalties or fumbles.
Kentucky Players to Watch
Senior quarterback Stephen Johnson is currently 112-of-183 for 1,355 yards and nine touchdowns with four interceptions. He’s also a threat to run, as he’s carried the ball 53 times for another 198 yards and two rushing touchdowns. His partner in the backfield is sophomore running back Benny Snell, who’s rushed 133 times for 541 yards and six touchdowns. The main target in the passing game is senior wide receiver Garrett Johnson, who’s caught 32 passes for 369 yards and two touchdowns.
On defense, Kentucky’s tackles are pretty evenly distributed among junior defensive back Mike Edwards (54), senior linebacker Courtney Love (51), and junior defensive back Darius West (49). Junior linebacker Josh Allen leads the team in sacks with 6.5 and tackles for loss. Edwards, in addition to leading the team in tackles, also leads the team in passes defended (8) and interceptions (3).
Senior kicker Austin MacGinnis is 13-of-18 on field goals and is perfect on attempts of 39 yards and shorter. He’s 3-of-5 between 40-49 and 2-of-5 over 50. Only 17 of his 39 kickoffs are touchbacks, so there’s opportunity on kickoff returns there for the Vols.
Tennessee should still be able to out-talent Kentucky. The Vols defense should be able to lock down Kentucky’s fairly feeble rushing attack, make them one-dimensional, and then turn up the heat with pressure and sacks.
On offense, we may find rushing yards hard to come by once again this week, but there are opportunities in the passing game if only Jarrett Guarantano and the receivers can find something that works. They shouldn’t have to worry too much about pressure in the backfield, so maybe that’s all they need to finally find some offensive magic. And if the passing game gets rolling, maybe that opens things up for John Kelly and the run game.
But the Vols are starting at a disadvantage with their tendency to give away gifts in penalties, as we can’t count on Kentucky returning the favor.
Bottom line, Tennessee’s defense should be able to do its part to win the game, and the offense will have opportunities through the air. Whether they can finally take advantage of opportunities, though, well, that’s the question.