You’d be right to be a Tennessee fan and be concerned that the Vols are hosting a top-15 program in a must-win situation in order to make it to the postseason [at least, with a traditional 6-6 record…]
Yet, that’s exactly what position I think the Vols are in this weekend when the Kentucky Wildcats come to Neyland Stadium for a chilly matchup.
It’s been a dream season for coach Mark Stoops, star running back Benny Snell Jr., dynamic pass-rusher Josh Allen and the rest of the Wildcats, who played Georgia last weekend for a chance to represent the SEC East in the SEC Championship Game. Prior to that loss to the better Bulldogs, the only setback for Stoops’ team was an overtime loss to Texas A&M at Kyle Field.
No matter if it was the phantom pass interference call giving them an untimed down they turned into a touchdown or breaking a long losing streak to Florida, UK has simply found a way all season. Now, Tennessee has to get by the ‘Cats.
You may ask why this is a must-win with Tennessee only needing two wins to close the season in order to get to six wins. That’s because, in my estimation, Mizzou is a horrible matchup for the Vols with its elite passing game and the way Drew Lock is playing. The Tigers look better on defense, can beat you with the running backs, and I don’t think the Vols can score enough to win.
Kentucky, on the other hand, isn’t a bad matchup. Yes, the Cats are strong on both lines of scrimmage and seasoned with veterans. They also have Snell. But they don’t score a ton of points, and UT is better-equipped to play in a slugfest than a shootout. This is a vitally important game for the Vols, so let’s look at the keys to winning.
Make Wilson beat you
Tennessee is 10th in the SEC in rush defense and now has to face the league’s best running back in Snell. That’s not good news. It also shouldn’t give the Vols the warm-and-fuzzies that UK quarterback Terry Wilson has looked much better throwing the ball in the past two weeks against Missouri and Georgia.
But the Vols have to make him beat them.
That means loading the box and going all-out to slow down Snell. That’s what Georgia did, and it worked. Now, UT doesn’t have anywhere near the talent on that side of the ball that the Bulldogs do, but coach Jeremy Pruitt has made a habit of making things difficult on certain aspects of the game. The Vols have to limit Snell and get the Cats off the field on third downs.
Kentucky edge-rusher Josh Allen is a next-level player who’ll be one of the highest picks in the NFL Draft.
Now, he gets to go up against Tennessee’s hapless offensive line that couldn’t even block Charlotte last week. Yes, the 49ers are good against the run, but they haven’t exactly played quality competition all year. Still, they dominated the Vols up front.
Good luck, Jarrett Guarantano. Good luck, UT offense.
Allen is going to get through at times; there’s no doubt about that. So, offensive coordinator Tyson Helton needs to mask the issues by the quick passing game like UT did against South Carolina. Quick-hitters are the only way to keep Guarantano from getting killed.
Take some shots
I will forever be frustrated with Tennessee fans for ripping Guarantano when the kid has two or three seconds to throw the football. That is a lack of football acumen.
You can think Keller Chryst would be a better option. You can think Guarantano doesn’t do a great job reading blitzes. Those things are fine. But Guarantano is a tough kid who’s done a good job this year. He isn’t the reason UT’s offense sucks.
The offensive line is. Helton deserves some blame, too.
But if Tennessee can loosen UK’s defense by keeping it on its toes with the short passing game and perhaps a little running success, the Vols must take some shots downfield. That’s how they beat Auburn, and we’ve not seen a lot of it since. This is the kind of game where you must pull out all the stops.
Get hot early
It’s going to be extremely cold in Knoxville with the high temperature barely creeping over 40 degrees.
If the Vols do what they did against Florida, you’re going to see a lot of grumbling fans get up and go home. That’s why UT needs to jump ahead early and keep the heat on. If the crowd gets into it, it could be a fun game.
Tennessee has been awful at Neyland Stadium this year, and that’s disappointing for the first year of the Pruitt era. It’s high time the Vols play with a home-field advantage and see what Neyland can do for them. I hope the crowd is into it because it is such a huge game. This isn’t . the Kentucky we’re used to seeing.
If UT gets up a score early, the crowd will follow.
Abernathy and Flowers? Pray for hours
The last few weeks have been torture for Tennessee’s secondary with Micah Abernathy and Trevon Flowers out for at least the past month with injuries and Alontae Taylor missing swaths of action thanks to two targeting calls.
Now, Taylor will be back on the field to start the game against the Wildcats, and he may have company from his two buddies. Flowers and Abernathy are both game-time decisions according to Pruitt, and both have seen some action on the practice field this week.
The only member of UT’s secondary to intercept a pass this year is Bryce Thompson, so UT can definitely use some playmakers on the back end. Those two guys — starting safeties — being on the back level will allow Thompson to get after the quarterback some. When the Vols can creep up a DB in the box and sometimes blitz the quarterback, good things happen.
UT needs those guys out there. Badly.
Prediction: Tennessee has to win one, so I’m going with my heart, even if my head says it probably won’t happen. Pruitt gets another big one.
Vols win, 24-23
At this point of the season, 5-2 is a solid tally, and we’ve moved back in black for the season now standing at 32-31. It’s taken a strong three-week run to get there, and we’ll try to continue that hot streak this week. The start of the season was bizarre, and even Alabama didn’t help us any. But we have worked hard to get back to MAKING MONEY, so let’s keep it going.
There isn’t much time to get back to the good, so we’ll set the modest goal of being six games over .500 in the next three weeks. If we can get to that point, it’ll be a solid season.
Last week, MTSU handled the 13.5-point spread against Western Kentucky, West Virginia’s late two-point conversion gave the Mountaineers the outright win over Texas when it was a two-point underdog. Georgia breezed by Kentucky to make the nine-point spread look like a piece of cake, USC won by 17, and though that game was 13.5 at kickoff, we called it at 16.5 and still won (barely). Boston College wrapped up the wins by toppling Virginia Tech to cover a 2.5-point spread.
We said Florida would cover a six-point spread against Missouri, and instead, the Gators got whipped in one of the biggest stunners of the SEC season. Finally, I thought the Cal-Wazzu game would go over 50, and it never got close as the Cougars won 19-13.
Still, we’ll take 5-2 all day every day. Let’s repeat that feat, shall we?
- West Virginia -11.5 over TCU: Whew. Too many favorites this week, huh? Yeah, I think so, too. But I’m a massive fan of Will Grier and Dana Holgorsen, and this is the kind of offense that rarely takes games off. TCU doesn’t have the same D Iowa State does. Mountaineers roll.
- Ohio State -4 over Michigan State: The Buckeyes are in trouble and fading fast. So why in the world would I take them on the road against Sparty? I am not a Brian Lewerke believer, and Dwayne Haskins will make just enough plays for OSU to win by eight or more.
- MTSU -13.5 over UTEP: This is one of those lines that are puzzling to me. Just because UTEP beat an awful Rice team for its first win of the year last week doesn’t mean it’s ready to hang with good teams like the Blue Raiders. This one’s gonna get ugly.
- Washington State -6 over Colorado: The Cougars killed us last week against Cal even though they won. They won’t throw up two clunkers in a row. The Minshew Moustache won’t allow it. Wazzu rolls.
- Purdue -11.5 over Minnesota: I’m going to keep riding the Fighting Brohms. I believe. Do I like that it’s on the road against a good defensive team? No, I don’t love it. But I like it enough to roll with it.
- Oregon +4.5 over Utah: Another puzzling one. Utah is perhaps the better team, but only when Tyler Huntley is playing. He’s out for the year. Give me Mario Cristobal’s team to surge to seven wins.
- LSU -13.5 over Arkansas: What? The Tigers aren’t THAT beat-up after the game against the Tide. The Tigers are leap-years better than the Hogs. They’ll dominate this one and win something like 27-6.