Tennessee and Kentucky renew their rivalry this Saturday in Neyland Stadium. This year’s game between the Vols and Wildcats will be the 114th meeting, meaning that Tennessee has faced Kentucky more times than any other team the Vols have played.
Tennessee (4-5, 1-4 SEC) enters the game coming off an uninspiring 14-3 win against Charlotte last Saturday. The 49ers led the Vols 244-192 in total offensive yards and held up to their No. 6 ranking in run defense by stifling Tennessee to zero yards rushing at the half. Conversely, Kentucky (7-2, 5-2 SEC) is coming off a 34-17 loss to Georgia, which clinched the SEC East with the win.
While both teams are looking to get back on track, each team also comes into this game with much more on its mind.
Tennessee will try to take one more step toward bowl eligibility, while Kentucky can improve its chances of reaching ten wins for the first time since 1977. The Wildcats are also searching for their first win in Knoxville since 1984, a mark that’s easily feasible considering this will be the most talented Kentucky team Tennessee has seen in quite some time.
In order for the Vols to keep their home win streak alive, here are five players that must be successful on Saturday:
1 Daniel Bituli, Linebacker
Tennessee linebacker Daniel Bituli leads the Vols in tackles with 57 on the season, but he’s only one of several on Tennessee’s defense that must play well to keep the Wildcats’ offense at bay. Kentucky has one of the best rushing attacks in the SEC, averaging over 199 yards on the season. Benny Snell Jr. leads the Wildcats with 1,008 yards on the season and has had three consecutive 1,000 yard seasons, but backup running back Asim Rose poses a threat to Tennessee as well.
Bituli will have to plug any gaps the Wildcats are able to find, or else the Vols’ defense is in for a long day.
- Drew Richmond, Offensive Tackle
With All-American tackle Trey Smith out indefinitely with blood clots, Drew Richmond has become one of the Vols’ next best options on the offensive line, which has been inconsistent so far this season. Richmond has struggled with penalties this season, but his low numbers in sacks allowed point to a more positive outlook considering an outstanding Wildcats’ front seven.
Kentucky ranks 17th in the nation in pass yards allowed, only giving up 178.6 yards per game. That number is due in large part to the Wildcats’ ability to block the pass rush.
Kentucky’s front seven will look to expose Tennessee’s struggling offensive line, but Richmond’s veteran status means that he’ll be a key to establishing the run game for the Vols.
- Kyle Phillips, Defensive End
After not producing much in his first three seasons on Rocky Top, senior defensive end Kyle Phillips has broken out this season. He leads the Vols with three sacks and has been disruptive all season. He has one interception against Alabama that he returned for a touchdown, and he has also recovered and returned fumbles this season.
Kentucky is reliant on its ground game, but quarterback Terry Wilson has thrown for 200 yards in back-to-back games for the first time this season. Wilson has also picked up 418 rushing yards, but six interceptions show that the Wildcats’ quarterback is prone to turn the ball over when pressured.
If the Vols want to be successful and force Wilson into tough situations, Phillips will have to play well.
- Bryce Thompson, Defensive Back
Tennessee has started two true freshmen at the cornerback spots for most of the season. Alontae Taylor was the more highly touted of the two and has been very good this season, but Thompson has been no slouch, either. He leads the Vols with three interceptions and has proved to be a playmaker in the secondary. Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt has stressed creating turnovers all season, and Thompson has answered the bell.
Wide receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. leads the Wildcats with 49 receptions for 509 yards, and he hauled in 13 receptions in Kentucky’s matchup against Missouri.
Thompson and Taylor will both spend time covering Bowden, but with teams targeting Thompson more often, he’ll have to be on the lookout again on Saturday for the Vols’ secondary to be successful.
- Josh Palmer, Wide Receiver
After struggling with inconsistency his freshman year, Palmer has proven reliable for the Vols this season. He leads the Vols with 414 receiving yards, and he also notches second on the team with two touchdowns.
Palmer has also posed a consistent deep threat, as he’s averaging 23 yards per reception on only 18 catches.
Kentucky has an impressive secondary led by Derrick Baity Jr., who has only given up three catches on 20 targets.
Tennessee receivers Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings draw much of the attention of opposing defenses, so if Kentucky continues that trend, Palmer could see a lot of balls thrown his way. With a struggling offense, Palmer will need to take advantage of those matchups and take the top off the Kentucky defense for Tennessee to find some footing on offense.
Kickoff will be this Saturday in Neyland Stadium on the SECN at 3:30 pm.
Featured image courtesy of Jake Nichols.
Edited by Jake Nichols.