The Cats and the Vols face off in Neyland on Saturday, where one team will get its solitary SEC win. Here's what to look for.
The good news for Kentucky Wildcats and Tennessee Volunteers fans? On Saturday at 3:30, their respective seasons will come to merciful ends. Joker Phillips will coach the Cats one last time while Derek Dooley has already been shown the door. Here's something that tells you all you need to know about Kentucky's football season and the current state of the program. Despite not winning an SEC game and playing without a head coach, the Vols opened as 14 point favorites over the Cats, and the line has barely moved from there. Of course, UT has been far more competitive in most of its SEC games than Kentucky. It fell to Missouri in overtime two weeks ago and played South Carolina within a field goal the week before.
This game is going to come down to which team is motivated to go out and perform. Tennessee is easily the more talented team, but by the same token is probably much more disappointed with how its season ended up. This squad was supposed to be competitive in the SEC East. It was not. Kentucky's players can at least look over and see their coach on the sideline, and know that they are working to send him out as a winner. The UT players will not have similar motivation.
Joker Phillips, it should be pointed out, is 0-1 against interim coaches in his UK career following an embarrassing loss to headless Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl in 2010.
WHEN KENTUCKY HAS THE BALL
UT's biggest problem is its defense. The Volunteers have given up 51, 41, 44, 38, 48, 51 and 41 in their last seven contests. They rank 114th out of 120 teams in the FBS in scoring defense.
That would be a very encouraging statistic but for one small issue. Kentucky ranks 119th in scoring offense. So something has to give. My guess is that Kentucky will have success running the ball against the Vols, but will, as always, struggle to put together a decent passing game. Though it has been overshadowed by a poor season overall, Kentucky has had success running the football in 2012. RBs Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George have combined for 1,060 yards and eight touchdowns on 209 carries. QB Jalen Whitlow has proven a capable runner as well.
If UK has another trick up its sleeve on Saturday, it may be to stick with the run while throwing some different looks at the Volunteers. Since it has not passed efficiently in quite some time, Kentucky will need to do something to prevent the Vols from stacking the box and teeing off on every play.
The Volunteers are led by safety Byron Moore and LB A.J. Johnson. Moore leads the team in interceptions with four and is also the team's second leading tackler. After an outstanding year as a true freshman, Johnson is one of the nation's leading tacklers with 124 stops.
WHEN TENNESSEE HAS THE BALL
Tyler Bray was having a pretty good year before completely melting down against Vanderbilt last week. On the season, he has 30 TDs to 12 INTs and has completed just under 60% of his passes. His top target is WR Justin Hunter, who is having a breakout year despite being surrounded by more heralded teammates. If Tennessee plays up to its capabilities, they shred the Kentucky defense.
Of course, the same thing might have been said in 2011, and we all know how that turned out. One reason Dooley is being replaced was his inability to get consistent effort from these guys. Bray, like some other UT QBs before him, can play very well and can also throw in a big turd sandwich every once in a while. Playing for essentially nothing, and coming off a soul crushing loss where he played poorly, and perhaps already thinking about the NFL, this feels like a turd game. We'll see.
All in all, this is a game that Kentucky can win, but several things would have to break right for them to do so. It would be nice to send Joker out a winner, but I think the team gave its sendoff last week and will view this one as an afterthought.