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Kentucky Wildcats vs. Tennessee Volunteers

Up until last weekend’s embarrassing showing in Starkville, the Kentucky Wildcats had yet to provide any real disappointing moments so far in the 2021 season.

However, after dropping two in a row on the road, including their most recent uninspiring 31-17 loss to MSU, every game from here on out becomes critical if Kentucky still wants a shot at competing in a New Year’s Six bowl. That begins Saturday night against the Tennessee Volunteers.

Dropping another game to a rival whose record currently sits at 4-4 would be a major gut-punch to the Big Blue Nation, and potentially derail what had the makings of an all-time special season.

UK opened as a 3 point favorite but the line has since been down to an even spread by many betting sites, and some even have Tennessee favored by one point now. ESPN’s matchup predictor gives the Vols a slight edge with a 51.2% chance of coming out victorious.

Tennessee should be well-rested after coming off a bye week, as they’ve not played a game since October 23rd.

Getting things back on track while avoiding that devastating three game skid should be enough motivation by itself for Mark Stoops and his team, but we all know an extra layer of spice is added when the Volunteers show up on the schedule.

Some splendid news for Wildcats fans is that UK will swap the hostile SEC road environments that they’ve seen the past several weeks for the friendly confines of Kroger Field.

Even better, the game will kick off under the lights at 7:00 pm ET on ESPN2.

Kentucky’s three biggest wins of the season, Missouri, Florida and LSU have all taken place during night games in Lexington.

Being reintroduced to a more familiar setting should go a long way for both sides of the football as UK aims to correct several compounding issues, including a sputtering offense that struggled tremendously in the month of October.

“It’s just we need to score. We need to score points. I think that just sustaining drives winning early downs, keeping a balance will be a huge key this week.” Coen said earlier this week when preview the match-up with Tennessee.

The total lack of continuity as an offensive unit is becoming a genuine concern.

Even Chris Rodriguez, once thought to be as consistent of an offensive weapon as there is in college football, has digressed in such a drastic way that his usage is being considerably impacted.

In fairness, Mark Stoops did confirm that C-Rod wasn’t 100% down in Starkville, which played a role in him not starting and only being granted eight total rushing attempts. It goes without saying that maintaining ball security from here on out is paramount for Rodriguez.

It appears this week that Liam Coen will have the SEC’s leading rush back at full strength, mentally and physically.

“He (Rodriguez) knows it hasn’t been good enough, and it’s not to his standard, not to our standard. I believe that he’ll come out with a different mentality and the right mentality for the game Saturday night.” Coen said.

The lack of a running game has impacted Will Levis and the passing game as well.

Ideally for UK fans, the transfer from Penn State can settle down and make throws against a Volunteer defense that surrenders just under 250 passing yards per game.

Alabama torched the Vols two weeks ago to the tune of 371 yards through the air in a 52-24 beat down.

Tennessee has given up 30 or more points in five of their eight games this season.

Things are set up well for Levis and the UK offense to have a breakout game and snap this two-game losing streak.

From a defensive standpoint, Brad White is likely to have his hands full slowing UT’s senior transfer quarterback.

After taking over the duties under center early on in this season, Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker has put up some impressive numbers with his arm and legs. Hooker has tossed 17 touchdowns to pair with only two interceptions.

This won’t make things any easier on a Kentucky defense that ranks dead last in the nation in turnover margin at -12. Woof.

If they can’t force Hooker to turn it over they’ll at least have to contain him.

Not only is he a threat throwing the ball, but he’s also first on the team with over 100 rushing attempts this season, four of those resulting in touchdowns.

Hooker spreads the ball around to a variety of receivers. Velus Jones Jr, Cedric Tillman and Jovonta Payton have all pulled down at least four touchdown receptions in just eight games.

But while Hooker and the passing game get a lot of attention, junior running back Tiyon Evans has become one of the best backfield threats in the SEC this season. The former JUCO recruit has 516 rushing yards on 80 carries (6.4 avg) and seven total touchdowns in just six games.

Evans has been a little banged up recently but did suit up against Alabama and should be good to go this week. The duo of Hooker and Evans in the backfield will be a major challenge for a Kentucky front seven that started strong this season but has given up an average of 144.5 rushing yards per game over the last four contests.

With the slew of injuries that Kentucky is battling on the defensive side of the ball it’ll take a big effort to slow down this Volunteer offense that boasts a 37.3 points per game average.

The Cats are still sitting in second place in the SEC East, and for good reason. We all saw the potential on display for the better part of this season. Despite some injuries here and there, not much has changed.