Tennessee (4-7, 1-6 SEC) at Kentucky (2-9, 0-7 SEC)
Saturday, 7:00 p.m. ET
Commonwealth Stadium (67,606) • Lexington, Ken.
Series Record: Tennessee leads 75-24-9
Why Saturday is important
The cold reality for both sides is that it isn’t in terms of postseason implications. Sure, both teams would like momentum heading into the offseason and pride, but, ultimately, the only thing riding on this game this season is staying out of last place in the SEC East. Both head coaches would like a win as they head into a crucial offseason of recruiting that will lay the foundation for their program. Perhaps the biggest motivator for the Vols is avoiding an eight-loss season, something that has never happened in the history of the program.
Three things to know about Kentucky
• Coach Mark Stoops inherited a huge rebuilding job and it’s going to be a slow process in Lexington. The Wildcats come into Saturday’s contest 2-9 with wins over Alabama State, an FCS program, and Miami (Oh.), a winless FBS squad. There have been glimpses of progress so far. The Wildcats battled against SEC opponents South Carolina, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt into the fourth quarter, but came up short. Thirty-plus point losses to Alabama, Georgia and Missouri have been reminders that they still have a lot of work to do, however.
• Former Texas Tech offensive coordinator Neal Brown was brought in to install the Air Raid offense for the Wildcats, a system that leans heavily on four and five receiver sets and lot of timing in the passing game. So far, it’s clearly a work in progress. Bothered by injuries and inconsistency at the quarterback position, the ‘Cats are 10th in the league in passing offense (187.9 ypg) and 13th in rushing offense (148.7 ypg). Sophomore QB Jalen Whitlow, a dual-threat player, is expected to get the start for Kentucky on Saturday. Leading rusher Raymond Sanders is suspended for Saturday’s contest against the Vols.
• While the present is dim, there is some future hope for Kentucky under Stoops. The Wildcats currently have the No. 20 recruiting class (per 247Sports), ahead of teams such as Oklahoma, Clemson, Oregon and South Carolina. Known as a relentless recruiter with ties in the Midwest, Kentucky hired Stoops with the hope that he could up the talent level in Lexington. He’s off to a good start in that regard so far.
What you should know about Kentucky coach Mark Stoops
A member of the Stoops coaching family, Mark is the brother of former Arizona head coach Mike Stoops, Youngstown State assistant Ron Stoops and current Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops. … Mark Stoops played defensive back at Iowa and worked his way through the coaching ranks with stops as a defensive assistant at South Florida, Wyoming, Houston and Miami before being hired as the DBs coach under Mike at Arizona in 2004 and being eventually promoted to defensive coordinator there. … He accepted the same position at Florida State in 2009 and had a strong run with the Seminoles from 2010-12. … FSU had one of the best defenses in the nation in 2012, leading to Stoops’ first job as a college head coach at Kentucky in 2013.
Tennessee player to watch
It’ll be the final game for UT’s seniors and running back Rajion Neal at least has a chance to go out with a milestone. He is just 10 rushing yards shy of 1,000 on the season. He would be the first UT back to top the century mark since Tauren Poole did it in 2010. And if Neal can get 56 yards on Saturday, he’ll have the most rushing yardage in a single season for a UT player since Montario Hardesty put up 1,345 in 2009. With Kentucky coming in second to last in the SEC in run defense, consider it a virtual lock for Neal to hit those numbers if he stays healthy.
Kentucky player to watch
Quarterback Jalen Whitlow can throw and run and dual-threat QBs have been tough on the Vols all season. To prepare for Whitlow, the Vols have been using speedy defensive back Reggie Juin as the scout-team quarterback all week. Though Whitlow might not be at the same caliber as Auburn’s Nick Marshall or Missouri’s Maty Mauk, the Vols’ poor recent history against QBs who can run is definitely a concern going into Saturday.
Random facts to impress your friends
After Saturday, a combined eight different head coaches will have been on the sidelines for UT and Kentucky in this series since just 2008. … Under the guidance of interim head coach Jim Chaney, the Vols got their only SEC win of 2012 in a 37-17 victory over the Wildcats. … Though Tennessee has won 27 of the last 28 in this series, six of the last nine contests have been decided by 10 points or less. … The Vols haven’t won in regulation in Lexington since 2005. They lost in 2011 and pulled out overtime victories in 2009 and 2007. … Tennessee needs just one more yard on the ground to have its best season rushing since 2004. … Senior offensive lineman Ja’Wuan James is set to break the all-time record for most games started by a UT O-lineman. … Tennessee has more wins over Kentucky than any other opponent. … The Vols are currently on a 12-game road losing streak.
“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.”
– Senior offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James
The Vols will win if …
Keeping Whitlow contained will be key. The Vols must make him throw the ball down the field and let a secondary that has been, at times, opportunistic this year make some plays. They must also establish the run game and get a few big plays out of the passing attack. Star receiver Marquez North is questionable, so other receivers might have to step up and help true freshman Joshua Dobbs.
The Vols will lose if …
They can’t control the line of scrimmage. If Kentucky can run the ball with Whitlow and running back Jojo Kemp and the Vols can’t stay on the field on offense, the Wildcats will have a chance to win this one. Tennessee doesn’t have much of a vertical passing game at this point, so if the Vols can’t consistently move the chains on the ground, it could be a long evening.
Unofficial injury report:
Out: QB Justin Worley, TE Alex Ellis, TE Joseph Ayres, WR Ryan Jenkins, DE Malik Brown, DT Trevarris Saulsberry, TE A.J. Branisel, WR Marquez North
Questionable: WR Cody Blanc
Tennessee 20, Kentucky 13
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga