As we have tried to do all season (and sometimes unsuccessfully, as was the case last week) we try to exchange Q&A with a blog from the team of our opposition. This week it is Rocky Top Talk, the outstanding University of Tennessee blog here on SB Nation. Joel is our good friend over there, and he kindly consented to do the Q&A with us this week.
This is a really big game for Kentucky, because as you all know, the Vols are owners of the longest winning streak in the nation over a rival team, and we are on the other end of that ownership. Streaks like that have consequences for both teams as nobody can rationally consider so lopsided an affair as an actual rivalry. I think Kentucky fans would love to consider it a rivalry again, but that must begin by winning a game.
Having lived a good portion of my life in Tennessee and visiting that state often over the years, I have a special affection for it and for the people there. Kentucky and Tennessee are perhaps closer than any two states in the south when it comes to their inhabitants -- it is usually very difficult to tell one from the other, and there are many divided loyalties in both states. My own sister cheers for Tennessee over Louisville or any other team except Kentucky.
This game does have consequences to the SEC. If Tennessee wins, they get to go to Atlanta, and Kentucky must settle for the same overall record it had last year, and a losing season in the SEC. If Kentucky wins, UK has a .500 season in the SEC and 8-4 overall, which is something to crow about in my opinion.
So without further ado, here are Joel's answers to my questions -- My questions are in bold and his answers are just below. You can find his questions and my answers by following this link.
Let's dispose of "the streak" first. Tennessee has defeated Kentucky every year in football since 1984, Johnny Majors' 8th year in Knoxville and really, the beginning of the most recent rise of Tennessee's football fortunes. How important is this streak to Vol fans, and what would be the consequences of its ending?
Speaking just for myself, the streak doesn't mean a whole lot. It's a badge of honor, I guess, but it's also one of those lose-lose propositions. The longer the streak continues, the more fans expect it to continue indefinitely and the more embarrassing it will be when it ends. I'd rather the team not focus on streaks and just win this year. If the streak does end on Saturday it will add one more large-ish straw to the already-burdened camel's back. By itself, it would cause little damage, but there's so much weight on that thing right now, that one more thing might just cause the beast to buckle.
Tennessee has struggled against good passing this year, and Woodson & Co. are at least potentially a very powerful passing offense. What must Tennessee do to keep Kentucky from putting up huge passing numbers?
The dilemma facing defensive coordinator John Chavis is two-fold: (1) the defensive line struggles to pressure the quarterback by itself, and (2) the secondary is young and inexperienced. Normally, Chavis remedies the first problem by employing various blitz packages and relying on his defensive backs to lock up their assignments in tight man-to-man coverage. It appears, though, that he's just too uncomfortable with his secondary to do this very much this season. Instead, he appears to be asking his linebackers to read the play and drop back into coverage to assist the d-backs if the quarterback is passing . The cornerbacks are giving receivers huge cushions, and their main objective is to not let anyone get behind them whether they have the ball or not. This bend-but-don't-break strategy has worked in more games than it hasn't, and while it distorts the stat sheet a bit in that they give up large numbers of passing (and rushing) yards to opponents, the only huge number Chavis is worried about is the score.
I and other Vol fans keep hoping that Chief will take the wraps off soon now that the young defensive backs have gained a season's worth of experience, let them play tighter coverage, and trust them more by sending the linebackers on more blitzes, but we'll see.
Phillip Fulmer has been under a bit of pressure since the 5-6 season UT experienced in 2005, known in some circles as "the year of which we do not speak." How would a Kentucky loss impact Fulmer's job security in the current environment?
I'd imagine that The Season of Which We Do Not Speak is a lot like an affair that some guy's wife had with his best friend. He may have forgiven her for the sake of the kids, but it's the first thing he brings up when another argument breaks out. The thing was scabbing up rather nicely until we got blown out by our two biggest rivals earlier this season. Those two nightmares are somewhat offset by two great victories over Georgia and Arkansas bringing us back to about even. Losing to both Vanderbilt and Kentucky would probably have sealed coach Fulmer's fate, but now that he's beaten the Commodores, he can likely withstand losing to the Wildcats even if it is for the first time in 22 years. He might sleeping on the sofa during the offseason, though.
Tennessee has done a great job of protecting Erik Ainge this year, but still, Ainge has not been able to produce the kind of numbers Woodson has despite a high completion percentage. In addition, the Vol running game is producing 20 yards or so per game less than Kentucky. What is holding this offense back? Great line, skilled players, and surprisingly low production. Why?
Like his defensive counterpart, the only stat offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe is concerned about is points. Much of the offensive strategy is to keep our struggling defense off the field. Normally that means running the ball, but with QB guru Cutcliffe and a reanimated Erik Ainge, we can achieve the same goal with a possession passing game. We don't really have a vertical threat at receiver anyway, so mixing up the run with a variety of short passes gets the team into a groove, moving down the field and chewing up the clock. I haven't looked that closely at the stats, but I'd guess that Tennessee has fewer possessions and more time of possession than does Kentucky, which might partially explain the difference. That, or we just aren't as good as Kentucky offensively. That's a definite possibility, too.
Kentucky is 12th in passing defense, and Tennessee is 62nd. Given the nature of both teams' offense, how does Tennessee overcome this disparity?
Forrest Foster, run. A lot of bending, only a little breaking. That's the formula. Run the ball and chew the clock on offense, keep everything in front of you on defense.
Kentucky's rushing defense continues to struggle. Arian Foster and Montario Hardesty have put up solid numbers against excellent SEC defenses this year. How do you think they'll do against the Cats?
Assuming that Cutcliffe dedicates himself to the running game like he did against Arkansas, they'll have good days. Foster is always flirting with fumbles, but he can rip off yardage in chunk after chunk after chunk primarily because he's big and powerful, but also because it takes most defensive players a quarter or two to get a bead on his speed, which is quite deceptive. Hardesty is a low center of gravity guy with a great burst and powerful, up the middle running, and if he can stay healthy, he can really contribute. I'm betting that Cutcliffe will in fact focus on the running game, and that both of these guys will combine to be the difference in the game.
How much has the dismissal of LaMarcus Coker hurt/helped this team?
Coker was our most dynamic playmaker at the running back position. In addition to that, we obviously lost a little bit of depth, but really, it's not that big of a loss. Foster and Hardesty are more than capable, and Foster was ahead of Coker on the depth chart anyway. Plus, freshman Lennon Creer is really, really good and appears to have Coker's speed, Foster's strength, and better vision than either of them.
How the heck are 106,000 screaming, Rocky Top-singin' Volunteer fans going to fit into a little corner of our 70,000 seat stadium?
Um, extreme dieting?
Back in the 1950's and 1960's, the Kentucky-Tennessee game was a huge rivalry. Do the Vols still see the Cats as actual rivals in football, or just another SEC opponent?
Every regular SEC opponent is a rival. Because we're neighboring states, there's always somebody on the team from Kentucky who wants to win more than anything, and coach Fulmer is pretty good about letting those guys motivate the team that week.
Who wins tomorrow, by how much, and what is the big reason why?
Tennessee's biggest problem as a program is focus and consistency, neither of which should be a problem with something as concrete as a trip to Atlanta at stake. Still, with Woodson at the helm and our passing defense not up to our regular standards, this appears to be a very difficult match up for us. Before I read your answer to my first question, I had picked Tennessee, 20-16, thinking that Cutcliffe's game plan would emphasize the run, that he would stick with it, that Foster would hold onto the ball, and that our defense would bend much more than it breaks. But if beating Tennessee is indeed the equivalent of Everest, K2, or Mars, then that's all the intangible you should need in a season in which the teams are abnormally even on talent, so I'm going to instead flip it around and call it 20-16, Kentucky.
We need this one -- if not now, when?