The Cats have lost back-to-back games against Georgia and Mississippi State and need to knock off the Volunteers to keep their hopes of a New Year’s Six Bowl alive.
As Kentucky prepares to face off against Tennessee under the lights, here are five players to keep an eye on.
#1. Chris Rodriguez
This one is probably the most obvious. The Kentucky offense is led by Rodriguez, and that has become clear over the last two games when Rodriguez has struggled.
The Wildcat running back was among the five leading rushers in the country going into the Georgia game, but over the last two games, combining for just 41 yards and no touchdowns. To put it into perspective, in the six games prior which were all Kentucky wins, Rodriguez averaged 128 rushing yards/game.
If Kentucky’s going to get back on track, Rodriguez has to get back on track. Reports out of practice have been good this week regarding Rodriguez, which should leave fans with some optimism going into the Tennessee matchup.
Rodriguez will go up against a Tennessee defense that is 7th in the SEC in rushing yards allowed per game this season, and I’d expect Liam Coen to attempt to get Rodriguez going early.
#2. Will Levis
Also not much of a surprise here, but Levis has to play better on Saturday coming off his worst performance of the season last week.
Levis was off from the start last weekend, missing receivers and throwing interceptions. It was just a poor performance, especially when looking at his counterpart, Mississippi State QB Will Rogers who completed 36/39 for 344 yards.
Levis seemed to be putting it together following a solid performance against LSU and playing well in a tough matchup against Georgia, but against Mississippi State, all that seemed to fall by the wayside.
Some rushing opportunities should be available for Levis against Tennessee’s defense, much like we saw against LSU. Emory Jones and Matt Corral both had big days on the ground against the Tennessee defense. Levis using his legs to extend drives and open up the offense could be critical for Kentucky.
Levis is still QB1 for the Cats, but if Kentucky is going to beat Tennessee, we need to see more of the LSU-game version of Levis as opposed to what we saw last week.
3. Trevin Wallace
Trevin Wallace made a name for himself by returning the blocked field goal against Florida, but Wallace had his best game in his young career at Kentucky last week when he finished with 12 tackles, including two for a loss, against Mississippi State and was named SEC Freshman of the Week.
Kentucky’s middle linebackers will play a key role on Saturday against a Tennessee rushing attack that is top 15 nationally. Running back Tiyon Evans has been among the SEC’s best when healthy and QB Hendon Hooker has been one of Tennessee’s top rushing threats.
Being able to contain the running game against the Vols will force Tennessee into obvious passing situations, where they haven’t excelled as much. Tennessee’s passing game has been built on tempo and forcing mismatches out of unexpected passing situations.
How DC Brad White plans to utilize Wallace is something to watch on Saturday.
#4. Josh Ali
Wide Receiver Josh Ali came back from injury against Mississippi State and was part of one of Kentucky’s few shining moments from the game, a 74-yard punt return for a touchdown.
But Ali wasn’t much of a factor in Kentucky’s passing game on Saturday, finishing with 2 catches for 9 yards. Obviously the QB play wasn’t great on Saturday, but Kentucky needs Ali to return to his status as a strong WR2 alongside Wan’Dale Robinson.
The Wildcat passing attack has to improve on Saturday, and Ali will need to be a crucial part of that resurgence.
#5. The Defensive Backs
The secondary struggled against Mississippi State as Will Rogers only had three incompletions on 39 pass attempts.
The secondary gets a different challenge this week against Tennessee, who likes to spread things out and take deep shots when mismatches occur.
Kentucky’s defense has done pretty well this season at not allowing explosive pass plays, but that will be put to the test against Tennessee on Saturday. It will be up to the secondary to not allow Tennessee to have success on the downfield throws that they’ve made a living on this season.
Another challenge for Kentucky’s DBs awaits on Saturday. They’ll need to answer the call if Kentucky wants to come way with a win.