KNOXVILLE, Tenn.– In the 118th meeting between the two teams, the No. 3 Tennessee Volunteers (7-0, 3-0 SEC) and the No. 19 Kentucky Wildcats (5-2, 2-2 SEC) will go head-to-head as ranked opponents for just the third time in the rivalry’s long history.
The top-20, SEC East matchup is set to kick off Saturday night at Neyland Stadium at 7 p.m. ET and can be seen on ESPN.
Tennessee announced that they will be wearing their modern “Dark Mode” uniforms that debuted in 2021, however, they will be paired with a black and orange helmet instead of the traditional white helmet. It’s the first time in program history that Tennessee will wear a black helmet.
So Far in 2022
Tennessee enters Saturday as one of two teams in the country with four Top-25 wins (at the time of the matchup) in 2022 (TCU is the other). Those wins came over No. 17 Pittsburgh, No. 20 Florida, No. 25 LSU, and No. 3 Alabama. The Vols have used those wins to amass a 7-0 record for the first time since 1998, where they went undefeated en route to a national championship.
The Vols are one of nine FBS teams that are still undefeated through eight weeks of the college football season. That undefeated standing has the Vols, who began the season unranked, ranked No. 3 in the AP Top-25 for the second straight week, which represents their highest ranking since it held the same spot to open the 2005 season. Tennessee is also receiving first-place votes for the second straight week as well.
Kentucky has two Top-25 wins in 2022, the first coming over No. 12 Florida in week two and the second over No. 16 Mississippi St. in week six. The Wildcats’ two losses came against No. 14 Ole Miss, where Kentucky had two turnovers in the final three minutes of the 22-19 loss, and South Carolina, a 24-14 loss in which Kentucky was without starting quarterback Will Levis.
Kentucky began the season ranked 20th in the AP Poll and moved inside the top-10 for three weeks (No. 9, No. 8, and No. 7) after their win over Florida. However, the loss to Ole Miss knocked them back to No. 13 before dropping to No. 22 after losing to South Carolina. They enter Saturday in their seventh different position in the AP Top-25.
Vols’ Offense vs Wildcats’ Defense
Just two weeks removed from scoring 52 points on the SEC’s second-best defense at the time against Alabama, Tennessee is once again set to match up against a top defense in the SEC.
Kentucky comes into Saturday’s matchup with the league’s second-ranked defense in terms of yardage (295.4) and scoring (16.4), only trailing No. 1 Georgia in both categories. The Wildcats’ defense, which has carried over from 2021, hasn’t allowed more than 24 points in 11 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the FBS. However, despite the recent defensive success, Kentucky will face its toughest offensive matchup on Saturday.
The Vols enter Saturday’s matchup as the premiere offense in college football. Tennessee leads the nation in both scoring offense (50.1) and total offense (571.7) and has put up at least 30 points in a league-best and school-record 10 straight games. Tennessee also leads the SEC in seven different offensive categories, including scoring offense, total offense, passing offense, passing efficiency, passing yards per completion, red zone offense, and fewest interceptions.
Keys to the Game
Kentucky has made it well known this week that their game plan to slow down Tennessee’s high-octane offense is by holding onto the ball and dominating the time of possession, more than likely via the ground game. However, Kentucky may have some challenges with that plan.
The Wildcats are ranked 13th out of 14 in rushing offense in the SEC with 113.4 rushing yards per game. Part of that is due to the fact that starting running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. missed the first four games of the season while serving a team-issued suspension. With Rodriguez back, Kentucky’s run game should be much better than earlier in the season.
Despite Rodriguez’s return, the Wildcats will have a difficult challenge against Tennessee’s defensive front. The Vols have the SEC’s second-best rushing defense, holding opponents to 90.9 rushing yards per game. Tennessee will have to keep up their dominant rushing defense against a powerful back in Rodriguez, who runs very physically and can control the pace of the game.
Even if Kentucky is successful in holding onto the ball, they will still have their hands full with Tennessee’s fast-paced offensive attack. Of Tennessee’s 56 scoring drives this season, 31 have come in two minutes or less, which accounts for over 55 percent of their drives.
Tennessee has proven they don’t need a lot of time to score and that they don’t care about winning the time of possession battle. Against Alabama, Tennessee put up 52 points in 22 minutes. On top of that, the Crimson Tide held the ball for 15 more minutes than the Vols did. If Kentucky does try and use the ground game to hold onto the ball, the Vols offense will need to be efficient and effective with their possessions.
Players to Watch
Despite being the best offense in the country, Tennessee has been without their best wide receiver in senior Cedric Tillman since week 3 against Akron. Tillman left that game early with an ankle injury and has been sidelined since after undergoing a tightrope ankle surgery.
Tillman, who was a preseason all-SEC player and the Vols’ number-one option at wideout, has been cleared to play and is set to return to the field against Kentucky. Tillman will join a Tennessee passing attack that is led by a Heisman candidate in quarterback Hendon Hooker and includes the SEC’s top wide receiver in Jalin Hyatt.
In 2022, Tillman has 17 receptions for 246 yards and a touchdown in three games after coming off of a 1,000-yard season in 2021. Adding Tillman back to an offense that has Hyatt (40 receptions, 769 yards, 12 touchdowns) and Bru McCoy gives Tennessee a true “three-headed monster” at wide receiver.
On the defensive side of the ball, Tennessee is adding back starting safety Jaylen McCollough, who has been sidelined for the past two weeks after he was arrested for assault on Oct. 9. However, after two weeks, McCollough has been cleared of all charges (ruled self-defense) and will return to a Tennessee secondary that is last in the SEC in passing defense. The return of the veteran leader should help a unit that has struggled in 2022.
For Kentucky, one key player to watch is quarterback Will Levis, who has been made out to be a top-five prospect in the upcoming 2023 NFL Draft. Despite the status, Levis has dealt with several struggles in 2022. Not only has Levis dealt with injuries, but he has also struggled with protecting the football. In six games, Levis is responsible for seven turnovers, including two lost fumbles that came late in the game against Ole Miss. Part of Levis’ struggles are from poor pass protection from his offensive line, as Levis has been sacked 20 times on the year. The other is due to poor decision-making and Levis trying to do too much on the field.
Despite his struggles, Levis presents the Vols with a decent challenge. He is an extremely physical and athletic runner with good arm strength. In 2022, Levis has 1,635 yards and 13 touchdowns for the Wildcats. If Kentucky gets the ground game established, Levis has the ability to beat Tennessee’s thin and struggling secondary.
The other offensive player to watch is running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. Despite missing four games, Rodriguez has not missed a beat, rushing for 395 yards on 72 attempts (5.5 average) and three touchdowns in just three games. In three career games against the Vols, Rodriguez has rushed 47 times for 263 yards (5.6 avg.) and a score, including a 22 for 109 line in Kentucky’s 45-42 loss in 2021.
Saturday has been labeled as a trap game for the third-ranked Vols as they host the tough defense and pesky offense of Kentucky. I expect a very physical game between these two teams and I believe that this game will come down to which team makes the fewest mistakes on the field. Tennessee and Hendon Hooker definitely have the advantage in that aspect, but will still need to continue to play at a high level to get passed Kentucky.
While Tennessee has dominated the overall series (82-26-9), including winning all but three games since 1985, it recently seems like Kentucky plays Tennessee close. In fact, three of the past five matchups between these two teams have been decided by a field goal. With that being said, the line for Saturday’s game favors Tennessee at -12.0 over the Wildcats.
Despite Kentucky’s stout defense, I’m taking the Vols in this one. Kentucky hasn’t seen an offense quite like Tennessee and combine that with Tillman’s return and the rowdy Neyland Stadium that forced several pre-snap mistakes from Alabama, Tennessee will overpower the Wildcats. It’s gonna be a close, hard-fought game, but Tennessee will get the win 42-31 over Kentucky.