Tennessee vs. Kentucky. Always a big game in football, and this year particularly so.
Tennessee has dominated this series for the last two decades. Twenty two years of frustration. Kentucky fans would like to see all that come to an end Saturday afternoon.
But will it? Kentucky has a good team this year, but it hasn't translated into success against the cream of the SEC crop. Kentucky did beat LSU in overtime at home, but has been unable to repeat that performance against Florida or Georgia. In fact, Kentucky is coming off an uninspiring trip to Athens, where the Cats' vaunted offense fell flat against the Dawgs, although the Kentucky defense did show signs of life for perhaps the first time all year.
For the first time I can remember, Kentucky is actually favored to win this game -- by a tiny 2½ points. What that represents is essentially our home field advantage, I would say, although with Knoxville being a mere 3 hours or so down I-75 from Lexington, I expect the Volunteer faithful to be here in force.
This game is perhaps a watershed in a way for Phillip Fulmer -- Win and go to the SEC championship game where anything becomes possible, bowl wise, except perhaps the BCS championship game. Lose and settle for a middle of the road bowl. Believe it or not, there is substantial money at stake here for both teams. BCS bowls pay out $17,000,000 per team, and Tennessee has a shot at the Sugar Bowl if they beat UK and LSU wins out. If they lose, they are looking at bowls playing around $3,000,000 per team.
Kentucky really doesn't have any shot at a BCS bowl. About the best we can do is what UT faces if it loses. No matter how average UT has been by their standards this year, they have been very opportunistic as far as the bowl picture is concerned. If UK loses, they could wind up back in Nashville for the Music City Bowl. While great for Wildcat fans, it is just so-so money wise, paying out only $1,600,000.
With all that said, let's look at the tale that statistics tell:
|Statistic||UK||OPP||DIFF||TENN||OPP||DIFF||TENN - UK||OPP DIFF||DIFF DIFF|
|Pts / G||35.5||27.7||7.8||33.5||26.7||6.8||-2||1||-1|
|Yds / G||427.2||378.5||48.7||393.4||388.3||5.1||-33.8||-9.8||-43.6|
|Rushing Yds / G||158.6||196.1||-37.6||151.2||160.6||-9.4||-7.4||35.5||28.2|
|Passing Yds / G||268.6||182.4||86.2||242.2||227.6||14.6||-26.4||-45.2||-71.6|
|Yds / Play||5.8||5.1||0.6||5.6||5.5||0.1||-0.2||-0.4||-0.5|
|Rushing Yds / Car||4.3||4.6||-0.2||4.5||4.3||0.2||0.2||0.3||0.4|
|Passing Yds / Att||7.1||6||1.1||6.6||6.7||-0.2||-0.5||-0.7||-1.3|
|Passing Yds / Cmp||11.4||10.8||0.6||10.2||11.5||-1.3||-1.2||-0.7||-1.9|
|Passing Cmp %||62.5||55.4||7.1||64||58.5||5.5||1.5||-3.1||-1.6|
|Punt Return Avg||8.2||4.7||3.5||9.6||13.8||-4.2||1.4||-9.1||-7.7|
|Yds / 7 Pts||84.3||95.5||11.2||82.3||101.7||19.4||2||6.2||8.2|
|Plays / 7 Pts||14.7||18.6||3.9||14.7||18.6||3.9||0||0||0|
|Rushing Play %||49.1||58.5||-9.4||47.5||52.4||-5||-1.6||6.1||4.4|
|Passing Play %||50.9||41.5||9.4||52.5||47.6||5||1.6||-6.1||-4.4|
|Turnovers / G||1.9||2||0.1||1.1||1.6||0.5||0.8||-0.4||0.4|
|Fumbles / G||1.1||0.9||-0.2||0.5||0.5||0.1||0.6||-0.4||0.3|
|Intercept / G||0.8||1.1||0.3||0.6||1.1||0.5||0.2||0||0.2|
It's amazing how equal Kentucky and Tennessee are on offense, and both are quite potent ranking 4th and 5th respectively in the SEC. Tennessee tends to do it a bit more on the ground, while Kentucky does more from the air. There is no doubt, though, that UK has the more potentially explosive offense. While that may seem good, it has potentially negative consequences as well, like giving short respites to the defense.
Kentucky is coming off a poor offensive performance, while Tennessee is coming off a pretty good one. Eric Ainge is perhaps the second best quarterback in the SEC behind André Woodson, and even though he doesn't really have any deep threat receivers, he is very efficient with shorter gains through the air. Tennessee also has a strong set of backs, and as we have seen all year, Kentucky is not a strong run defense.
Kentucky, however, does have deep threat receivers, and Tennessee's young secondary is vulnerable. Once again, we see each team's offensive strength matching up against their opponents' defensive weakness.
Neither of these teams can be said to be strong defensive teams. In fact Kentucky and Tennessee rank 10th and 11th in the conference in total defense, respectively. Tennessee is better against the run, and Kentucky is better against the pass, but again, both are very equal as you can see from the comparison above.
Tennessee has struggled with the pass rush, which can be deadly against a player like Woodson and receivers like Johnson, Lyons, Burton and Tamme. Conversely, Tennessee has done a great job against opponents keeping their defenses off of Ainge, and the Wildcats have done a less than spectacular job putting pressure on quarterbacks this year.
Special teams and turnovers
Kentucky has done a spectacular job on kickoff coverage leading the SEC in that statistic. However, Tennessee leads the SEC in kickoff returns. Once again, strength vs. strength. The rest of the punting and kicking game is about even except for field goal percentage, where Tennessee also leads the league. This stat could give them an advantage in a close game.
Turnover wise, Tennessee has a slight advantage in turnover statistics.
Intangibles and Injuries
The intangibles benefit Kentucky. Not only is it a senior day where UK is seeing off perhaps the greatest senior class in recent memory, but a very long winning streak is on the line for Vols and the Wildcats are way past overdue. There is no doubt this winning streak is important, as Kentucky has 8 players on the roster from the state of Tennessee, including Ricky Lumpkin, Lones Sieber, and Jeremy Jarmon. These guys will be wanting this one in the worst way, and the seniors would love to go out killing the nation's longest current winning streak.
Injury-wise, Kentucky is in slightly better shape, but Tennessee is much deeper, so injuries bother them a lot less.
This game has all the earmarks of a classic shootout -- strong offenses against relatively weak defenses. What worries me most is the fact that SEC teams this year have fared badly on senior day, with the ultimate example being Alabama dropping a game to Louisiana-Monroe on its senior day, a loss for which aftershocks are still being felt throughout the SEC.
It certainly could be fate that UT and UK are so evenly matched this year, something that has not happened in a very long time. Kentucky just recently became the victim of the longest losing streak in the country when Navy finally ended their streak against Notre Dame earlier this year. Unfortunately, we have another one with Florida that is about to supplant Tennessee if UK does manage a win, but these things have to be dealt with one at a time.
If Kentucky's receivers have big days, it could be ugly for Tennessee. UK's run defense has been reasonably good at giving up yards but not giving up a whole bunch of touchdowns. If Tennessee cannot get pressure on Woodson, our vertical threats are likely to make big plays, assuming Woodson has recovered his accuracy in the interregnum between this weekend and last.
For Tennessee, if they are able to look at a bunch of second and five or six situations, Kentucky will be in trouble. We simply have to keep their backs to three yards or less per carry, or it will enable their passing game, and Ainge is very accurate and efficient, even though UT's offense isn't a big-play offense like Kentucky's.
My prediction: Kentucky, 35, Tennessee 30.