The 18th-ranked Tennessee Volunteers seem to have the perfect opponent up next for them as they try to bounce back with a victory after an ugly loss.
That would be Kentucky.
The Wildcats have not won in Knoxville since 1984 with a string of 17 straight losses at Neyland Stadium going into Saturday’s game with Tennessee. The Volunteers have won 33 of the past 35 games in this border rivalry.
But only Georgia and Florida have more wins than Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division the past three seasons, and Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt sees the Wildcats as a team that could easily be undefeated instead of 1-2 after losses to Auburn and Ole Miss.
His Vols lost 44-21 loss at No. 3 Georgia last week.
“It’ll be a tremendous challenge for us to find out a little bit about who we are,” Pruitt said.
Kentucky just throttled Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense, picking off six passes in a 24-2 win over Mississippi State last week. Coach Mark Stoops said playing this SEC-only schedule this season is a grind with the league enjoying NFL-like parity and forcing everyone to hit the reset button.
And this game matters because it’s Tennessee.
“It is a team that is on your side of the league,” said Stoops, who is 1-6 against Tennessee. “It’s an East game, it’s a rival game, it’s our neighbor. It’s an important football game.”
Tennessee beat Kentucky 17-13 last year in Lexington despite the Wildcats holding the ball for more than 41 minutes. The Vols got a couple sacks despite Kentucky throwing only seven passes.
“No matter whether they pass the ball 48 times a game or run the ball 60 times a game, we’re just trying to go out there and play some good football and win the ball game,” Tennessee defensive end Matthew Butler said.
FIX THE OFFENSE
Tennessee snapped its eight-game winning streak with the loss at Georgia. Worse, the Vols were shut down and out being outscored 27-0 in the second half. Pruitt and the Vols have been working to clean up mistakes, which included too many penalties and three turnovers — first of the season for senior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano.
The Vols also gave up five sacks, twice as many as they allowed through the first two games combined.
INVOLVE THE RECEIVERS
Kentucky seeks to jump-start its passing game after several fits and starts. Terry Wilson was just 8 of 20 passing for 73 yards and sacked twice but managed to hit seven targets at least once, including tight Keaton Upshaw with a TD pass. The object is getting them the ball more often.
“We’re going do the best we can do to execute more this next game,” Kentucky’s top receiver Josh Ali said. “You just got to keep everybody up, no negative energy and focus on what we have to do this weekend.”
Tennessee finished with minus-1 yard in the loss to Georgia, and running back Eric Gray says that loss offered the Vols a chance to look in the mirror and realize they can be better. Running might not be much easier against Kentucky with the Wildcats eighth nationally in run defense, holding opponents to 83.3 yards.
“They got a big front four on the defensive line, and I believe our offensive line will put them to the test this week,” Gray said.
Kentucky has either been very good offensively or defensively, but not simultaneously. Last week was a perfect example as the Wildcats gained just 157 yards but won thanks to six interceptions by a defense that grounded the Air Raid.
Of course, there’s the looming question of whether they can win in Knoxville for the first time since 1984.
Tennessee will have the SEC’s sack leader back for kickoff Saturday. Outside linebacker Deandre Johnson was ejected for targeting in the first quarter of the loss to Georgia because of his hit on the quarterback. Johnson still leads the league with 3 1/2 sacks.
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