LEXINGTON, Ky. — It’s Week 10 and Kentucky and Tennessee’s matchup means big things for the SEC East.
Florida and Tennessee are in the best spots to don the divisional crown, but with a Wildcats win in Knoxville, Tenn., and Gators losses to South Carolina and LSU, Kentucky would represent the East in Atlanta at season’s end.
Tennessee leads the all-time series over Kentucky 78-24 with nine ties. The Wildcats haven’t beaten the Volunteers at Neyland Stadium since 1984. Coach Mark Stoops hasn’t notched a win over Tennessee in his tenure and the Vols have scored 50 or more points in each of the last two years.
Here are five key things for Kentucky if the Wildcats are to reverse history and hold onto divisional hopes:
Benny and Boom
The running back duo has led Kentucky’s resurgence of five wins in its last seven games. Boom Williams, the flashy veteran, has played behind Benny Snell, the bruising freshman, in recent weeks. Both will need big games against Tennessee.
Snell recorded 21 carries to Williams’ 14 last Saturday against Georgia. Stoops said Monday that Snell’s emergence hasn’t created discord in the running back room.
“Is is it always perfect for all those players? No,” Stoops said Monday. “Was it easy in that locker room? No. Everybody wants to, there should be a competitive nature about some people that are pissed off after a game like that. Doesn’t mean there’s any issues.”
Williams is fourth in the SEC with 99 rushing yards per game. Snell is seventh in the conference with 86 but leads all SEC running backs with 10 rushing touchdowns. Expect the duo to combine for 40-plus carries against Tennessee.
The Volunteers run defense ranks in the bottom half in the conference in yards per attempt, yards per game and rushing touchdowns.
No turnover game
Kentucky’s carefree nature with the football finally caught up to it last weekend against Georgia. Two turnovers in the third quarter changed the game.
Quarterback Stephen Johnson’s interception was receiver Jeff Badet’s fault, but a pursuit of zero turnovers has to start with Johnson. He fumbled in the backfield against Georgia but Kentucky managed to recover it. Fumbles have plagued him in his first year as a starter.
Turnovers have almost equally terrorized both Tennessee and Kentucky. The Wildcats are worst in the SEC with 22 turnovers lost, and the Vols are close behind with 20.
Kentucky can’t win in a place it hasn’t in more than 30 years by giving up the football.
Empty the bag of tricks
Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran has quite a few of them.
The wildcat formation is becoming Kentucky’s favorite set and there’s plenty of looks the Cats can show out of it. Both Snell and Williams can take the direct snap and Stoops hasn’t ruled out passing out of the formation.
Johnson lines up as a receiver out of the set and he’s been used in reverses where the ball ends back in his hands as a passing threat. Kentucky’s offense has evolved as its run-first identify has solidified but it doesn’t seem like Gran is done yet.
Kentucky is a road underdog. There’s nothing in the playbook the Cats will be holding back in this one.
— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) October 23, 2016
Quiet the crowd
Tennessee has been banged up and the Volunteers have been one of the biggest disappointments this season. Yet, in a very short time, Tennessee is all of a sudden playing for something again.
The weakness of the East has put Tennessee back in contention so there’s no chance Kentucky catches the Vols sleeping through the noon start.
Neyland Stadium will be packed as always, but the noon kickoff could benefit Kentucky. The early start typically takes energy out of a stadium and the Wildcats run game could slow the game down and ugly it up.
Forget the history
Not much points to Kentucky winning on Saturday, and it shouldn’t. Players don’t usually get caught up in series history and such, and it would be in their best interest to not start Saturday.
Kentucky hasn’t held an extended advantage against Tennessee since the 1950s.
The Wildcats won as underdogs at home against Mississippi State and at Missouri, but Tennessee is a much more difficult task.