LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky heads to Tennessee needing a road win in a place it hasn’t won since 1984 in order to stay in contention for a division title.
The Wildcats (5-4, 4-3 SEC) face the Volunteers (6-3, 2-3 SEC) at noon ET Saturday at Neyland Stadium. Here are five keys for Kentucky before the game.
We caught up with Mike Griffith, who covers Tennessee football for SEC Country, to discuss the matchup.
Joe: Tennessee started the season as the favorite in the East, and while it’s been quite a tumultuous ride, the Vols are right back in it. How would you describe what’s going on in Knoxville this season?
Mike: A top-heavy schedule (ranked No. 1 most difficult prior to the Tennessee Tech game last week) took its toll the opening seven weeks of the season. The Vols started 5-0, but they were exhaustive wins, with the team coming from double digits down to win four of those five games. The Vols had lost three of the four team captains to injuries before the bye week arrived in October. Tennessee has persevered and can win the SEC East if it wins out and Florida loses one of its final two conference games. It’s been a test of resiliency for the Vols, who feature only 11 seniors.
Joe: Injuries have been one of the main problems for Tennessee. How healthy will the Vols be for Saturday?
Mike: There’s a chance Tennessee could be starting its ninth different combination in the secondary and seventh different offensive line combo, depending on the health of right tackle Chance Hall and safety Micah Abernathy and cornerback Cam Sutton, all of whom are questionable. The Vols have lost four of their top six defensive tackles to attrition/injuries, too, so that’s a position to watch. Butch Jones also said all-purpose yardage leader Alvin Kamara is questionable to return from the knee injury he suffered on Oct. 15 against Alabama. Evan Berry, who led the nation in kick returns last season and was ranked No. 2 this season, is out for the year with a knee injury. All that said, Tennessee is about as healthy as it has been since September.
Joe: Kentucky likes to run the ball. How do you see the game unfolding in the trenches when Kentucky’s on offense?
Mike: The Vols will likely sell out to stop the run, so Kentucky’s best chance is to try to manage some semblance of a pass game. Tennessee has been susceptible to the big play this season, getting scorched for long gains in the secondary. I’d imagine the Wildcats will try to pound the ball as long as they stay within one score of Tennessee.
Joe: What’s the mindset of Tennessee fans right now? Are they coming back on board a little bit or is there still some skepticism?
Mike: Tennessee fans wanted this to be the season, but the reality of what injuries can do to a team has sunk in. A total of 18 starters have missed a start at some point this season, and that’s not the kind of “ball bouncing the right way” scenario that leads to championships. The loss to South Carolina upset many, but if Butch Jones can win out over Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt, most will consider the season a success in light of the injuries and schedule strength.
Joe: Is there any chance Kentucky gets its first win in Knoxville since 1984?
Mike: There’s always a chance, especially if Kentucky can win the turnover battle. That’s obviously been an issue for the Wildcats, but Tennessee has also been turnover prone. If Kentucky can get off to a fast start — the Vols have failed to score first in seven of nine games — the Wildcats will improve their chances for a win greatly.