I was extremely surprised that the Kentucky Wildcats were picked ahead of the Vols in the SEC media's voting this week. UK hasn't defeated the Vols since 1984, even though some of the last match-ups have been extremely close (the 2006,2007,2009 games were decided by one score).
However, both programs have gone through a huge turnover.
Derek Dooley and Joker Phillips are rookie BCS coaches, and both teams have huge holes to fill. The Vols are missing NFL draftees Jon Crompton and Montario Hardesty at the skill positions, and their entire offensive line through graduation or transfer (Aaron Douglas).
On defense, Dan Williams was a run stuffer at nose tackle, and the Vols will miss Dennis Rogan and the legendary Eric Berry in the secondary.
The Cats lost their share of players too, especially on defense. On offense, they too must replace four line starters, and find a quarterback who makes the least mistakes from holdover Randall Cobb, Mike Hartline, and Morgan Newton.
On defense, six starters return, but UK has to fill the void left by NFL draft picks Micah Johnson, Trevard Lindley, and Corey Peters.
I think Tennessee will finish higher than the Cats for three reasons.
First, Tennessee has a better recruiting class.
Even when the Vols have seven win seasons and coaching changes, they finish with top ten recruiting classes. According to rivals.com, the Vols picked up one five star recruit (Da'Rick Rogers) and 12 four star prospects.On the other hand, UK only picked up one four star recruit, monstrous (260 lbs) tight end Alex Smith from Cincinnati.
Both the Vols and UK have sustained similar losses on both sides of the ball. However, Tennessee is more prepared to build depth with their blue chip recruits. This top ten class also will help the Vols in seasons to come.
Kentucky may have some skill position studs (Derrick Locke, Randall Cobb), but Tennessee has a superior defense. Under new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, defensive ends Ben Martin (3.5 sacks) and Chris Walker (6 sacks) will be free to rush the passer.
The linebackers will be bolstered by the return of special team demon and captain Nick Reveiz from injury, and LaMarcus Thompson will help stop Locke with his release and run stuffing abillity (7 tackles for loss).
Even with the loss of Berry and Rogan and the dismissal of Darren Myles, Tennessee has some playmakers in the secondary to counter Kentucky's blossoming receivers Randall Cobb (447 yards) and Chris Matthews (354 yards). Janzen Jackson is a heavy hitter (37 tackles) at safety, and Art Evans brings senior leadership as a cover corner.
Kentucky has a decent defense, but DeQuin Evans (6 sacks) the only standout, and he could have a good game against Tennessee's depleted offensive line. Kentucky's defense will probably hold Tennessee's inexperience offense to a low point total, but they don't have the turnover causing potential of Wilcox and his play-makers in the secondary (Janzen Jackson,Eric Gordon).
The final reason is the location of the game. A lot of pundits may have picked UK to beat Tennessee, because the 'Cats play middleweights Ole Miss and Mississippi State out of the SEC West as opposed to Alabama and Ole Miss for the Vols.
However, the final head to head match-up in Neyland Stadium will decide Kentucky and UT's finish in the East, and maybe a bowl appearance will be at stake. Three of the last five UT/UK match-ups have been blowouts in Knoxville including 2008's 28 to 10 beat-down.
None of the players on Kentucky's current roster can remember the Wildcats' upset win in Neyland Stadium in 1984.
Going into Knoxville with a bowl bid at stake will put the Vols on their A game. The game will close because of the weakness in the offensive lines, but both Hartline and Morgan Newton have a history of making mistakes in big games, and the Vols will win the game and fourth place in the East.