In all likelihood, Saturday's game between the Kentucky Wildcats and the Tennessee Volunteers will decide which team will advanced to the post-season. The loser will have a steep hill to climb the last two weeks of the season. It is an incredibly important game for both programs as they are each looking for crucial momentum, and another month of practice, to catapult them into next season. There is a lot on the line.
Yesterday, SB Nation's Resident Bad Boy© Hunter Turner was kind enough to provide very informative answers to the questions I had about Tennessee's football team. Hunter Turner writes over at our SB Nation sister site Rocky Top Talk which recently wrote a good post about this rivalry being "The Battle of the Rebuilds".
Without further ado...
Tennessee's overall record stands at 4-5 but UT has played more than their share of very good teams. How do UT fans feel about this season so far, and the Butch Jones era in Year Two?
Every fan base has crazies, and we probably have more than our fair share thanks to all of the historical success of the program, but most Tennessee fans think Butch Jones and #Team118 are on the right track. The epic comeback against South Carolina went a long way toward repairing the angst generated by Tennessee's 9-10 loss to a horrible Florida team at home, and more importantly, the win meant that the Vols can reach a bowl with two wins in the next three games (Kentucky, Missouri, and Vanderbilt).
UT has had quite a bit of success on the recruiting trail as of late, and that's continued into the 2015 class. Is there any legitimate concern among the Vol faithful about keeping the current crop of recruits committed?
I'm the primary recruiting writer at Rocky Top Talk, and I can tell you that I have absolutely zero concerns about retaining the 2015 recruiting class. Butch Jones has done a fantastic job of pitching recruits on two things: 1) the opportunity for early playing time, with true freshmen like Derek Barnett (DE), Jalen Hurd (RB), and Josh Malone (WR) appearing in the starting lineup; and, 2) the tradition and history of the Vols, with past greats like Peyton Manning, Jason Witten, and Al Wilson all making multiple appearances at the football complex. As a result, the most important recruits in the 2015 class see themselves as key players in returning Tennessee to the top of the SEC East. If anything, the Vols might have lost recruits if they'd played too well this season.
The advanced stats really like UT's defense, but the raw are a bit less favorable. Which measure, in your opinion, paints the more accurate picture? Also, can you provide a general outlook on the defense's strengths and weaknesses for UK fans?
Ha, well... the reason for the adjustment is pretty simple: the Vols have played one of the hardest schedules in the country. Tennessee defeated #48 Utah State (7-3), #63 Arkansas State (6-3), UTC (FCS), and #52 South Carolina (4-5), and lost to #11 Oklahoma (6-3), #13 Georgia (7-2), #41 Florida (5-3), #1 Alabama (8-1), and #2 Ole Miss (7-2)(all rankings from the most recent F/+). The Vols lost to both Georgia and Florida in the last minute, and had credible showings against Alabama, Oklahoma, and Ole Miss. Opponent adjusted stats tend to reward playing well against good teams, so that's how you end up with a team like Arkansas who doesn't have a single SEC victory ranked higher than Kentucky, who've bagged a pair of conference wins already. Essentially, F/+ is more impressed by the Razorbacks keeping it close against Alabama than they are by the Wildcats eking a victory out over Vanderbilt.
Tennessee's defense is substantially faster and more talented than last year, but it's also much younger and more inexperienced. The defensive line is active but undersized (the Vols have only a single healthy player over 300 pounds), with true freshman defensive end Derek Barnett (2nd in the SEC in TFLs, 3rd in Sacks) and sophomore Corey Vereen leading the way. The linebacking corps lacks depth, but each of the starters has a singular talent: AJ Johnson leads the SEC in tackles, Jalen Reeves-Maybin is excellent in coverage, and hybrid LB/DE Curt Maggitt is the second best pass-rusher on the team. In recent weeks, the secondary has struggled to contain the Coopers (Amari and Pharoh), but that's due more to youth than a lack of talent. If Patrick Towles decides to try his luck throwing in cornerback Cam Sutton's direction, he's going to be sorely disappointed.
I think it's fair to say that UT's offense has struggled this season. What is the biggest cause for that, and was it expected heading into the season?
Tennessee had to replace every single starter on the offensive line going into the season and the backups, with the exception of left guard Marcus Jackson, were ridiculously inexperienced. How bad is it? The Vols are starting true freshman right guard Jashon Robertson, who was a defensive tackle during fall camp, and walk-on senior Jacob Gilliam is starting at right tackle despite tearing at least one knee ligament completely against Arkansas State (he switched from left to right tackle and sat out three weeks after the injury).
Tennessee fans expected the offensive line to be mediocre after sending right tackle Juwuan James, right guard Zach Fulton, and left tackle Tiny Richardson to the NFL, but four star JUCO offensive tackle Dontavius Blair was expected to lock down at least one tackle position. Instead, Blair is playing on the scout team (and will probably redshirt) while the Vols start a converted guard at left tackle, a freshman at right guard, and some sort of Wolverine/cyborg hybrid at right tackle. That's... not great.
Against South Carolina Joshua Dobbs stepped in at quarterback for the injured Justin Worley. The result was the most points UT has scored this season against a SEC opponent. How much was that Dobbs and the rest of the offense, and how much was it South Carolina's poor defense?
Make no mistake, South Carolina's defense is B-A-D. On the other hand, Dobbs didn't just manage the game against the Gamecocks, he orchestrated an overtime win after coming back from a two touchdown deficit (twice) and rushing for the most yards by any Tennessee quarterback ever. He also gave a preview of his quarterbacking skill against Alabama the week prior when he replaced injured starter Justin Worley and immediately injected new life into the offense. Yeah, we're pretty excited about him.
Which players on the offense should UK fans be aware of on Saturday?
Dobbs is a deceptively slippery runner on quarterback runs, but he can also be prone to bouts of inaccuracy when throwing the ball. Freshman running back Jalen Hurd is an upright, slashing runner with good top end speed and surprising strength. If Dobbs can keep the offense on schedule, you'll quickly tire of hearing Hurd's name called. Saturday may also mark the first significant carries for another freshman running back, Derrell Scott, but he's an unknown quantity. As far as pass catchers go, Tennessee's best deep threat wide receiver Marquez North is playing through injury, so I'd expect to see his understudy, freshman Josh Malone. The slot receivers (Von Pearson and Pig Howard) will get work against Kentucky's linebackers and safeties, and tight end Ethan Wolf is dangerous on seam routes upfield.
All in all, this is a good young group of skill position players. Kentucky should attack Tennessee's suspect offensive line with the front four and as many blitzes as possible, or the Vols are likely to run roughshod over a tired, depleted Wildcat secondary.
UK's special teams has been pretty bad this season against good opposing special teams units. Should UK fans be concerned about UT's special teams units this Saturday?
Tennessee's special teams have improved in coverage, but the return units haven't broken anything this year. Barring sudden and drastic improvement, Kentucky doesn't have anything to worry about in the return game. As much as I'd like to sign Isiah McKenzie to a one-day contract, that isn't going to happen.
Predict the outcome and what are the factor or factors that will be the main contributors?
Kentucky is a vastly improved team from the last few years under Joker Phillips. Mark Stoops has done a really nice job of improving both the talent and depth on the roster, and his coordinators have made great strides coaching on both sides of the ball. Kentucky should have beaten Florida (if not for a horrible uncalled delay-of-game), and I don't think anyone the UT football office is taking the Wildcats lightly. That said, the grind of playing eight straight games has to wear on a young team, even one as improved as Kentucky. The Wildcats are also playing at Neyland Stadium, and Tennessee is much tougher at home, with a loud, obnoxious crowd and Rocky Top blaring at every opportunity.
As usual, turnovers and injuries will have an outsized effect on the game, with both teams relying on a handful of important players. On defense, I'd expect the Vols to bring a safety into the box to try and contain Towles' running ability and force him to throw the ball to the corners and down the field. On offense, I think Tennessee will try to get Hurd going with runs and quick passes that exploit Kentucky's edge discipline.
This is a classic SEC matchup between two up-and-coming teams, and I expect it to be a good one.