Tennessee Volunteers vs. Kentucky Wildcats Complete Game Preview
The Tennessee Volunteers hoped Saturday's season finale against Kentucky would mean something. But after a last-minute loss to Vanderbilt, both the Vols and Wildcats will conclude their football seasons Saturday night.
A downward spiral has been tough to stomach for a UT team that had so much hope after upsetting South Carolina in October. Since then, the Vols have fallen to Alabama, Missouri, Auburn and Vandy to miss on a bowl for the third consecutive season.
This will mark the second season in a row that this game has featured a matchup of teams without bowl aspirations. Last year, the Vols won 37-17 under interim coach and current Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney after Derek Dooley was officially fired. It was the largest margin of victory in the series in 10 years, dating back to UT's 24-0 win in 2002.
UT's Butch Jones hopes to match last year's 5-7 record as the Vols try to continue their streak of having never lost eight games in a season. Fellow first-year coach Mark Stoops is looking for his biggest win of the year for the 2-9 Cats.
The Vols simply must play for pride and show they've still got heart after having theirs ripped from them last week. If they lay down and lose, the forecast for the Jones regime gets a little cloudier. Jones talked this week about ending the season 1-0, and that's what these seniors must do.
It may not be a big game for the present, but a win at least ends the season on a somewhat positive note for the Vols' youngsters. Winning would be a catalyst to an important developmental offseason for UT.
Here's everything you need to know about the game.
Date: Saturday, Nov. 30
Time: 7 p.m. ET
Place: Commonwealth Stadium, Lexington, Ky.
Radio: Vol Network, UK IMG Sports Network, Sirius Premiere Channel 119/XM Channel 199
Spread: Tennessee by four points, according to Sportsbook.com
Tennessee Keys to Victory
The Vols have to realize now that they're building for the future. The only thing left for the senior contributors is to leave the program on a winning note.
Getting up for a meaningless game is a difficult proposition for Butch Jones and his coaching staff to overcome, but winning against Kentucky will mean the Vols won two SEC games rather than the one Derek Dooley won last year.
It's a tiny improvement, but at least it's something. UT's players must have a short-term memory and play for Saturday only. If they do, it will give a little bit of spark to what already is going to be a long offseason.
Pressure the Passer
Sacking the quarterback has been a major deficiency for the past four years. The Vols again are dead last in sacks in the SEC this season.
According to a tweet from Knoxville's WNML sports radio's Jimmy Hyams, Jones told the Knoxville Quarterback Club Monday that getting pass-rushers is the second-most important recruiting bedrock behind finding a quality quarterback.
UT has some help on the way in recruiting, but for the present, seniors like Marlon Walls and Jacques Smith have to get pressure on UK's quarterback tandem of Jalen Whitlow and Maxwell Smith to keep the Wildcats offense from getting on track.
True freshman Corey Vereen needs more snaps, and he needs a big one to help his development heading into the offseason. He'll be relied on much more next year.
Tennessee has been haunted by players who felt snubbed by the Vols in the recruiting process before—especially against Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
Former UK great Randall Cobb gave UT fits in his career. Last week, VU quarterback Patton Robinette of nearby Maryville High School scored the game-winning touchdown with 16 seconds left to beat UT.
There are Wildcats all over the field who could have been Vols.
UK's leading rusher against Georgia, Dyshawn Mobley, is a bruising back from Knoxville who dreamed of playing for the Vols. Speedy runner JoJo Kemp was recruited by the Vols last year but never received an offer.
Two of the Wildcats' top six tacklers have UT ties. Leading tackler Avery Williamson is from Tennessee and was overlooked by UT in the process. Khalid Henderson is a former Vol commit who has become a disruptive force as an underclassman.
All those guys have chips on their shoulders, so the Vols have to be ready for them.
Kentucky Keys to Victory
Force Dobbs Turnovers
The few times the Vols tried to throw downfield against Vanderbilt, they were unsuccessful. Freshman quarterback Joshua Dobbs hurled two poorly thrown interceptions that drastically limited UT's game plan moving forward.
While UK's secondary isn't as good as VU's, the Wildcats will attempt to bait Dobbs into turning the football over again. He has lost two fumbles and thrown five interceptions in his three starts.
The Vols aren't good enough to turn it over against anybody and win. Valuing possessions is a must.
Use Their Speed
From quarterback Jalen Whitlow all the way through their offense, the Wildcats have some players who can make things happen with their feet.
That fact isn't lost on UT coach Butch Jones, who noted in this week's press conference that the Vols have their work cut out for them again in guarding the edges.
"Kentucky is a very talented football team in terms of team speed," Jones said. "They are going to challenge us defensively at getting the ball out on the perimeter."
UT was much improved defensively against Vanderbilt, and the Vols have to close the season strong and make sure they push plays to the interior.
Hit 'Em While They're Down
Let's face it: Tennessee can't be fired up to play this week.
Kentucky isn't a pushover by any means, but the Wildcats also are probably the worst team in the SEC. Still, they're playing at home against a deflated Vols team that has beaten UK 27 of the past 28 meetings.
This is a big game for UK, and it isn't for the Vols. If the two teams play that way, Tennessee will suffer its first eight-loss season in school history.
Players to Watch for Tennessee
The freshman quarterback really showed his age against the Commodores and proved there is a reason that coaches tried to redshirt him.
Playing was a necessity this year, and while he did some decent things throughout his time as a starter, this is the final on-field audition for Dobbs to prove he can grasp the starting quarterback role and be the front-runner heading into spring drills.
If he sputters again, you've got to think that hold on the job is tenuous at best.
The senior defensive tackle has been through a lot in his Tennessee career, but he's one of those kids who has done nothing but been a model citizen and a good player since coming to UT.
That career will end Saturday, and it would be fitting for it to close with a big game.
He'll never be looked at as one of the Vol greats, but Hood has been a quality player who will be difficult to replace next year. Against Kentucky's running game, UT needs him to step up.
Even with stud recruits Jalen Hurd and Treyvon Paulk coming in next year, Lane is in line to get an increased work load as a senior in 2014.
He is UT's hardest running back, but fumbling and injury issues have derailed him over his career. The Vols should give him an extended look Saturday to see how he looks carrying the load and taking the knocks through the course of an SEC game.
Players to Watch for Kentucky
The dual-threat quarterback injured his non-throwing shoulder in a blowout loss to Georgia, and UK was a different team without him.
UK coach Mark Stoops was noncommittal on Whitlow's status for Saturday, but if there's any way he can play, he will. He's just the type of quarterback who can give Tennessee fits.
Whitlow has 454 rushing yards and six touchdowns to go along with 1,035 more passing yards and five more scores. The Vols would rather see Maxwell Smith under center, but if it's Whitlow, they'll have to change their defense to account for his rushing ability.
The All-SEC linebacker from Milan, Tenn. has enjoyed another superb season, and he'd like nothing more than to even his record against his home-state Vols in his final season.
The 6'1", 238-pound linebacker has amassed a team-leading 96 tackles and four tackles for a loss and will almost certainly play on the next level. He's the Wildcats' A.J. Johnson, and he will probably make a ton of tackles against UT in his final collegiate game.
He isn't listed as one of UK's top three tailbacks, but the sophomore from Powell High School just outside of Knoxville was one of the few bright spots for the Cats against Georgia, rushing for 92 yards, including a 69-yard touchdown.
With a chip on his shoulder and on the heels of a strong game, Mobley will get the opportunity to burn the Vols for not recruiting him. While JoJo Kemp's speed is probably UT's biggest concern as far as Kentucky runners go, Mobley will try to pound them all day.
What They Are Saying
Tennessee senior offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James won't finish his career the way he'd hoped, but he said there is still one opportunity left to get things heading in the right direction.
He spoke at the players' press conference posted by UTSports.com of how different the past two offseasons were. Two years ago, UT lost to Kentucky, and last year, the Vols beat the Wildcats.
I don't think it will be difficult to get motivated at all. We are all competitive. For the seniors, this is our last college football game. We want to go out there and compete and play to the best of our abilities. I am going to try and make that 60 minutes last as long as I can.
This upcoming week is big. We need to get a win to go into the offseason. It helps with momentum. My sophomore year, we lost to Kentucky. That offseason compared to last year when we beat Kentucky makes a big difference. A victory helps get good things going into the offseason.
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops was asked if UK quit in a 59-17 thrashing at the hands of Georgia last week. While he wouldn't admit that, the fiery coach certainly wasn't happy, according to the transcript posted on UKathletics.com.
"(Quit is) a strong word, but it was not acceptable play," Stoops said. " I know if I had to be around that for a whole year, that would be very difficult for me to be around.
As frustrating as this season has been for UT, there are a couple of positive points tweeted by the Knoxville News-Sentinel's Evan Woodbery and Football Time in Tennessee.
According to Woodbery: "Attendance at Neyland Stadium this year was best since 2010."
Then, there's this positive tidbit from Football Time: "An overlooked positive this year: The #Vols are 1 rushing yard away from their best season on the ground since 2004."
Tennessee coach Butch Jones isn't ready to get the hook out for Joshua Dobbs just yet. Despite a dismal performance in a loss to Vanderbilt, Jones hasn't lost confidence.
Joshua Dobbs will be our starting quarterback. I think Josh has continue to progress. I thought Saturday he showed his age a little bit. He rushed his progressions. He had done a great job of going from A to B to C or 1 to 2 to 3, everything was kind of happening very fast for him. So I thought he show a little bit of his age Saturday night. But again, Josh has already been in and that is the maturation phase of a young quarterback playing.
The Tennessee Vols haven't finished this season the way anybody within Butch Jones' regime had hoped, but they certainly haven't quit. They simply have been overmatched talent-wise, for the most part.
If UT had been mailing it in recently, that would be one thing, but that hasn't been the case. This Vols team is more talented than Kentucky, and while the Wildcats are faster, there are plenty of things Tennessee will be able to do to combat that.
This isn't going to be a pretty game by any means, mainly because it's two bad teams. But UT is playing for pride, and the Vols aren't going to let Kentucky hand them their first eight-loss season in program history.
Tennessee will make enough plays in the end to win.
Prediction: Tennessee 27, Kentucky 17