This weekend will be a great one in Lexington. The Breeder's Cup is running for the first time at Keeneland, it's Halloween in a college town, and the Kentucky-Tennessee game will be in primetime. Both teams will need a win on Saturday to advance their season's goals. For Tennessee a win gets them one step closer to the SEC East crown, and for UK a win would super-charge the team for the home stretch to the point of breaking Earth's gravitational pull.
Earlier this week I exchanged emails with SB Nation's resident Horse Thief™, Bad Boy™, and Senior Editor at Rocky Top Talk Hunter Turner (@CobbWebbAttack). Mr. Turner has a firm handle on the team in Knoxville, and on the wider SEC football landscape. I recommend following his work.
Without further ado...
1. Butch Jones was on the hot seat earlier this season, to varying degrees, after the late-game collapses versus Oklahoma and Florida. What would you say the temperature is sitting out these days?
HT: This is Tennessee, so there's a vocal minority who is unhappy unless the Vols are in the conversation for SEC or national championships. Insane asylums aside, Tennessee fans have found two good reasons to back off the pressure on Butch Jones: 1) the teams to which the Vols have lost have turned out to be pretty darn good-- Florida, Oklahoma, and Alabama have three losses combined (not to mention Bowling Green looks likely to win the MAC); and 2) the Vols beat Georgia, and not in a fluky lots-of-unsustainable-
But let me tell you, things will heat up quickly if Butch manages to lose to Kentucky or Vanderbilt.
2. Jones and Mark Stoops are both in their third seasons. What grade would you give Jones as a UT fan nearly three years in, but also what grade would you give Mark Stoops as an outsider?
HT: Jones is sitting on a cumulative B+. He gets an A in program management, game planning, recruiting, roster building, and public relations, but he's rocking a C in actual game day coaching and adjustments.
Stoops inherited a tough job at Kentucky-- Joker didn't exactly leave the roster brimming with talent, and expectations were probably unreasonably high after Brooks' tenure. I'd say he's done a pretty solid job overall-- somewhere in the B+ to A- range.
What Stoops is missing is the depth and/or impact player to earn a signature win. He's come close, like the Florida losses the last two years, but hasn't managed to break through. It's tough because I don't know who's a viable candidate if you wanted to make a move-- one of the offensive guys like a Todd Hermann, maybe? You have to balance the up-and-coming genius with the slog of program building, which none of the new guys would really want to do. I'd say keep Stoops if he makes a bowl this year, ie, barring a total collapse.
3. UT has had some excellent recruiting classes under Jones. Many of those offensive skill players now have a year or two under their belts. Talk a bit about which skill players you are most excited about. Who has lived up to/surpassed expectations this season, and are their different players UK fans should be aware of in the seasons ahead.
HT: This is a weird deal because the Vols have a bunch of really highly touted receivers who haven't done much. On the other hand, running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara (JUCO transfer from Alabama but still a redshirt sophomore) have been absolutely the real deal. Don't sleep on these guys... Back to the wide receivers-- it depends on who's healthy. Josh Malone, Josh Smith, and freshman Preston Williams have all had their moments, and JUCO senior Von Pearson can be nasty after the catch. Malone and Williams are two names to keep track of next season and beyond
4. UT has a good run and pass defense this season, according to the advanced stats. Watching the Oklahoma and 'Bama games, I was especially impressed with the athleticism of the front seven. Which defensive standouts should UK fans watch out for on Saturday night.
HT: Defensive end Derek Barnett is the headliner even though he's had a bit of a disappointing sophomore campaign-- he leads a young defensive line unit that's done okay against the run but struggled to get consistent pressure. Outside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin is the Vols leading tackler by far, and he'll be all over the field Saturday, but the other two likely starters at linebacker are boom-or-bust freshmen (Darrin Kirkland, Jr. and Austin Smith). The secondary has been a huge disappointment this year after returning virtually everyone, but that's largely due to nickelback Rashaan Gaulden going out for the season in fall camp. Unless you want to be picked off, don't throw at junior cornerback Cam Sutton.
5. UK's special teams has been adequate overall this season, but has been pretty good in punt coverage. On Saturday, the Wildcats will face a Tennessee team that is excellent at returning kick-offs and punts. The featured returned man is former blue chip safety from Georgia. Were UT fans aware of what they had in terms of special teams in the preseason, and what difference has it played 7 games in?
HT: The return guy you're talking about is Evan Berry-- yes, of the Eric Berry family (one of his younger brothers)-- and he's tremendously fast with some serious wiggle. While the coverage units and kick returns have been very good, punt returns have been merely okay. Punter Trevor Daniels has been solid, but field goal kicker Aaron Medley has been a complete disaster outside of 40 yards, missing long would-be game winners against Florida and Alabama. As for the effect, well, good special teams have really sparked the Vols against a number of teams, with good field position setting the offense up for success and bailing out the defense.
6. I'll be blunt: UT is a mismatch for UK. Aside from a Breeder's Cup afternoon/Halloween night festive atmosphere pushing UK to victory, it's hard to imagine wildcards or ways for UK to exploit UT. So you tell me, what have been UT's weaknesses this season, and what's the likelihood UK can do something about them?
HT: No offense intended, but most Tennessee fans expect to thoroughly dominate Kentucky. I'm a bit less confident based on the number of injuries the Vols have suffered and the mental impact of so many close losses. For the Wildcats to win, the Kentucky defense will need to play disciplined against Tennessee's outside running game, especially when quarterback Josh Dobbs takes off. If the Blue and White can slow down the run game, they'll have a chance to force Dobbs into mistakes downfield-- he's not the most accurate quarterback.
Tennessee's coaches have also shown remarkably conservative tendencies as soon as the Vols have grabbed even slight leads-- if Kentucky can play well against the run, they'll have a chance to make plays against a one-dimensional, predictable squad. Don't get the lead early, because Tennessee is great from behind but terrible with an advantage.
7. What's your score prediction, and what will have the biggest impact on the outcome?
HT: Turnovers, turnovers, and special teams. I think the Vols are good enough to win it by a huge margin, but the injury and let down factors (following a close loss to Alabama) will really come into play. I'll say Tennessee 28-14, but it's not because I don't respect Kentucky. I think the Wildcats will give the Vols all they can handle for three quarters and have a chance to win, but I think in the end, Tennessee's talent advantage is too much to overcome.