Photo by University of Kentucky Athletics (@UKFootball)
By Tucker Harlin
KNOXVILLE, Tenn- No. 21 Tennessee (5-2, 2-2) wraps up October with a trip to Lexington to take on Kentucky (5-2, 2-2) at Kroger Field Saturday. The game will kick off at 7 p.m. ET and will air on ESPN.
While their records are identical, the Vols own a commanding 83-26-9 advantage all-time over the Wildcats.
In the last 38 seasons, the Wildcats have three wins over the Vols. In years the Wildcats have won, a Vols coach has been fired within a year of the loss.
Last year, the Vols won 44-6 in Neyland Stadium, and current Tennessee Titans backup quarterback Will Levis threw for 98 yards and three interceptions.
The Wildcats will play in their first game after the bye. They won their first five games, but three of the Wildcats first five games were against MAC and FCS foes. The Wildcats won their first SEC game on the road against a bad Vanderbilt team 45-28, and they followed that with a 33-14 win over a Florida program they have won four of the last six against.
However, the Wildcats last two games have been grim.
Georgia jumped all over the Wildcats in Athens in a 51-13 beatdown. The Wildcats then squandered an early lead against Missouri at home in a 38-21 loss. It was the first win for the Tigers in Lexington since 2013.
The Wildcats offense has been most productive on the ground in 2023.
Ray Davis transferred in from Vanderbilt in the offseason, and he has racked up 781 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. Davis ran for over 100 yards in three of the first seven games, including a 280-yard output in the win over Florida.
While the rushing attack has been productive, the passing game has fallen short of expectations.
Wildcats quarterback Devin Leary transferred in from NC State this offseason. Leary averaged 285 yards through the air in the first three games, but that average has dipped to 130 yards per game in SEC play.
Leary’s top three targets are Tayvion Robinson, Dane Key, and Barion Brown. Robinson transferred in from Virginia Tech two offseasons ago and leads the Wildcats with 338 receiving yards. Key and Brown were coveted recruits in the class of 2022 and were the top two receivers for the Wildcats last year.
The Wildcats look better up front than they did in 2022, and the improvement hinges on the play of center Eli Cox.
Cox was one of the few bright spots on the offensive line in 2022, starting every game for the Wildcats both this season and last. He was at guard to start the season but has moved back to center with the injury to Jager Burton.
Kenneth Horsey and Dylan Ray are the guards for the Wildcats.
Horsey has been an anchor for the Wildcats over the past four seasons. Ray transferred in from West Virginia but has seen an extended role due to Burton’s injury. It is possible we see both Ray and Burton on Saturday.
Jeremy Flax and Marques Cox are the tackles. Flax is in his second season as a full-time starter and Marques Cox is a graduate transfer from Northern Illinois.
While the offensive line has had to rebuild this year, so has the defensive front.
The most consistent piece is defensive tackle Deone Walker. Walker leads the Wildcats in both tackles for loss and quarterback hits with 6.5 and four, and he leads the defensive line in both sacks and tackles with 3.5 and 25.
The other two positions up front will see a two-man rotation. At edge, Tre’Vonn Rybka and Kahlil Saunders will be interchangeable, and Josaih Hayes and Octavious Oxendine will rotate at nose.
The Wildcats are strong at linebacker this year, and it starts with JJ Weaver at the Jack position.
Weaver was born with an extra finger on one of his hands, a result of a rare condition called polydactyly. A seasoned veteran, Weaver has been a constant on the defense for the last three seasons.
D’Eryk Jackson and Trevin Wallace are in the Mike and Willie spots. Jackson is tied for the most tackles on the team at 44, and Wallace is tied for the most sacks on the team with 3.5.
In the secondary, the brightest star for the Wildcats is corner Maxwell Hairston.
Hairston only recorded two tackles in 2022. Now, he is the other Wildcat with 44 tackles and is in a tie for the most interceptions in all of FBS with five.
The only returning starter in the Wildcats secondary is free safety Jordan Lovett. Lovett is just a sophomore but was quick to make an impact last year, finishing with 62 tackles and a pair of interceptions.
Andru Phillips, Zion Childress, and Alex Afari are the other three pieces in the secondary for the Wildcats. All three saw plenty of playing time in 2022, but they started sparingly. Afari is in the Nickel spot, Phillips is on the other corner, and Childress is manning strong safety.
Kicking has been an adventure for the Wildcats in recent years, but Georgia Southern transfer Alex Raynor has been a pleasant surprise in 2023. Outside of one missed extra point, Raynor is perfect on the year.
Wilson Berry handles punting for the Wildcats. Berry saw the field last year due to Colin Goodfellow’s injury, and he is averaging just over 40 yards per punt.
Barion Brown and Tayvion Robinson are the Wildcats’ top returners. The Vols actively kicked away from Brown last season. Brown returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the opener against Ball State but has yet to return one in SEC play.