(Sorry, non-Cimaglia division.)
Starting quarterback isn’t an option; we still don’t know if we’re going to see Brian Maurer this week, nor have we seen enough of him to know exactly what to expect. If that leads to Jarrett Guarantano, is his injured hand any better this week? Guarantano, to his credit, has dominated Kentucky statistically: 18-of-23 for 242 in Lexington two years ago, 12-of-20 for 197 in Knoxville last year. The Vols lost to Kentucky in 2017 because they couldn’t put the ball in the end zone, settling for six field goal attempts and four makes in a 29-26 loss. Obviously, that’s been an issue for Tennessee in the red zone all season.
The running game, much celebrated against Mississippi State and Alabama, had a rough night against UAB. The offensive line was banged up, and we’ll see if any of that has changed. Kentucky was stronger against Missouri in the rain, holding the Tigers to 125 yards on 34 carries (3.68 per). But in every other SEC contest, the Cats have allowed between 5.1-6.1 yards per carry.
For Tennessee, the answer to the certainty question has become the defense. It’s not surprising when Jeremy Pruitt is your head coach, but the way it’s happened? After getting sliced and diced by Georgia State, the Vols have rallied to 26th in SP+ defense. If Tennessee earns bowl eligibility, it will likely come because the Vols finish the regular season with a Top 25 defense. And that rally isn’t necessarily on the shoulders of a breakout superstar (no disrespect to Bryce Thompson’s three interceptions against UAB). The Vols are simply getting better play from almost everyone on that side of the ball: good, old-fashioned player development. Remember that? It’s a terrific sign for the program going forward.
It’s also a particularly good sign against Kentucky. Tennessee struggled against Kyle Trask, Jake Fromm, and Tua Tagovailoa. Stopping players like that might be a conversation for Missouri. But that’s not an option for Kentucky. And at this point, I think we can safely say that if you’re not getting above average or better play at quarterback, the Vol defense can have its way with you:
(I know, bad memories, but consider how this list looks even better if we take away a single BYU completion.)
Maybe Brian Maurer comes out and takes the torch of present and future quarterback play once more. Maybe the offensive line is more healthy and the Vols can run with more success against a Kentucky defense that’s struggled to stop it.
But no matter what, the way Tennessee’s defense has forced all but the three best quarterbacks it has faced into a plethora of bad decisions? That’s very good news no matter who the Vols or Wildcats send out to take the first snap Saturday night. Tennessee has been rolling four weeks in a row. But if Kentucky’s bye week and Tennessee’s sixth-straight affair lead to ugliness, this defense now has a history of making the opposition look bad enough for the Vols to escape with victory.