Tennessee at Kentucky
When: Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013; Time TBD
Where: Lexington, Ky.
Kentucky at a glance:
Head coach: Mark Stoops (1st year at Kentucky)
All-time record: 580-582-44
2012 record: 2-10 (0-8 SEC)
Returning starters: 6 (offense), 7 (defense)
2012 overview: There’s not too much positive to say about Kentucky’s 2012 campaign. Outside of a 29-24 loss to Georgia in Lexington, the injury-plagued Wildcats weren’t competitive in any SEC game.
Though the SEC slate was brutal, the lowest point of the year came after a 32-31 overtime loss to in-state foe Western Kentucky. Kentucky ended the season with just two wins – one over Samford, an FCS opponent, and the other over Kent State.
An already undermanned Kentucky squad lost several key members as the season progressed. Quarterback Maxwell Smith, running back CoShik Williams and cornerback Marcus Caffey (academics) were among the many Wildcats who missed large chunks of 2012.
Coach Joker Phillip was fired in early November and the Wildcats hope there’s nowhere to go but up after the hiring of former Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops – who, like Butch Jones, has earned high marks for his early enthusiasm and success on the recruiting trail.
There’s a long road ahead for Stoops and the Wildcats, though. They were last in scoring offense and second to last in scoring defense in the SEC in 2012.
Three questions for the 2013 matchup:
1. How will Kentucky’s “air raid” offense work in Year 1?
Stoops brought in former Texas Tech offensive coordinator Neal Brown, who will install the “air raid” offense, utilizing plenty of four-wide receiver sets. He has several options at quarterback, starting with Smith and including sophomores Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles, who both saw action last season. Finding receivers will be a tougher task. Four seniors moved on and the Wildcats will need the likes of A.J. Legree and Demarco Robinson to step up.
2. Can Kentucky’s defensive front be a strength?
The Wildcats aren’t up to SEC standard at most positions, but they have some players on their defensive front who can help Stoops lay a foundation for his new 4-3 defense. Linebacker Avery Williamson was second in the league in tackles last year with 135 stops. Defensive linemen Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble join linebacker Khalid Henderson as other dependable options in the front seven.
3. Can Tennessee get back to its dominant ways in this series?
Few series in the college football have been as lopsided as this one. Tennessee holds a commanding 75-24-9 edge and the Vols have won 27 of the last 28 meetings. UT’s recent struggles have helped Kentucky narrow the gap, though. The Wildcats got their first win over UT in over two decades in 2011 and UT’s previous five wins came by a margin of just 8.2 points per game. Under interim head coach Jim Chaney, the Vols got back on the winning track over Kentucky with a 37-17 win last season, and they hope that Jones can continue their winning tradition in this series.
How will it play out?
Tennessee fans have become accustomed to ending the regular season with a win over Kentucky.
That hasn’t been as much of a foregone conclusion recently, and the 2013 trip to Lexington can’t be counted as an automatic “W” for the Vols heading into the season.
But the Vols are ahead of Kentucky in terms of overall talent level and Jones should have the upper hand in his first meeting with Stoops. The Vols should be the favorite and could win this one by a few scores if all goes well.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga