The Vols are looking to become bowl eligible as they head into the last quarter of the season. They may only need one win to do so with APR eligibility, but that won’t stop them from pursuing a guaranteed bid by reaching six wins. Finishing the year with a .500 record would be quite a feat for a young team that faced a massive overhaul in the offseason. With two of the remaining three games at home, the Vols have the opportunity to pull an upset over No. 11 Kentucky for what would be their first conference win in Knoxville under Jeremy Pruitt. Here are five bold predictions that will lead to that accomplishment:
Vols Will Hold Snell Under 75 Yards
It is not overly-impressive to hold a running back to less than 75 yards, but it would be strangely impressive if Tennessee’s defense can do so given the state of its run defense. Tennessee was absolutely gashed in its last conference game against South Carolina. Look for the Vols to load the box and force quarterback Terry Wilson to beat them through the air. Also, the Benny Snell train might be slowing down a bit. He has been held to under 75 yards three out of the past four games. The one exception was against lowly Vanderbilt, where he rushed for 169. Tennessee will continue the trend though, and hold its own against a team that will emphasize the run.
Vols Running Backs Have a Day
I am not bold enough to predict that the Vols will run over Kentucky’s stout defense. But, I am going out on a limb to say that the Vols’ running backs will cause problems for the Wildcats. One of the things that has helped Tennessee move the ball this year is getting their running backs on the edge and in space. Ty Chandler is the Vols’ most dynamic player and he has capable weapons behind him. Getting the backs the ball through the air will be key to avoiding Kentucky’s pass rush.
Even though the Vols are in the bottom-third of the FBS in rushing offense, Chandler averages 4.8 YPC. He has proven to be a viable receiving option, as well. One new development that can help in regards to Tennessee’s offensive attack is Carlin Fils-Aime. After making the switch back to running back, he has 30 yards on four carries and a touchdown. It is a small sample size, but he has looked like one of the Vols’ fastest players. These guys could feast on what should be an aggressive attack from Mark Stoops’ defense.
Kentucky is currently 33rd in the FBS in rushing defense. However, Tennessee has faced similar defenses without being constricted. Auburn and Georgia sit right behind Kentucky in the same category. Also, the Vols are coming of their worst rushing performance of the season after facing Charlotte’s impressive defense. The 49ers are third in the FBS in rushing defense and give up an amazing 2.5 yards per rush. Kentucky allows an average of 3.8. Don’t let last week’s putrid performance be an indicator for this week. The Vols get back on track with the help of their running backs, who will eclipse 200 total yards.
Vols’ Passing Game Reemerges
Ultimately, I think the Vols’ offensive line is slowly getting better despite an underwhelming performance last week. I think they stick to their average by giving up only two sacks. This is not an impressive number, but it will be against one of the nation’s best pass rushers. Kentucky’s Josh Allen is one of the best NFL prospects in the country. The dynamic pass rusher has 10 sacks on the season, all solo. He has also forced five fumbles.
I am trusting that offensive coordinator Tyson Helton will convince Jarrett Guarantano to actually move in the pocket. Even a few steps would do. Maybe they practiced “Simon Says” during the week to condition Guarantano to do so. Or incorporating the Cha-Cha Slide would have been even better. In any event, Guarantano has to eventually protect himself better and improvise. I think this is where we see a glimpse of that.
Look for Helton to implement a mixture of the South Carolina and Auburn game plan. The Vols will attack the edge early on offense, while Guarantano targets the intermediate parts of the defense. After showing their hand, I think the Vols will take a few shots with timing routes and deep throws. Guarantano is actually in the top-third of 117 qualified quarterbacks in passing efficiency. He may not throw for over 300 yards as was the case versus Auburn, but he will be efficient enough against a stellar defense.
Nigel Warrior has a Breakout Game
Nigel Warrior has yet to make a significant statement this year. The fiery safety is one of Tennessee’s best players, but is looking for an offense to feast on. This is the perfect opportunity. The Wildcats will be dedicated to sticking with run plays, some of which will come from designed runs via Wilson. The quarterback is not much of a threat through the air, but on the ground, he is dangerous.
Pruitt’s best option is to bring consistent pressure and load the box. One side of the field should be shut down for Wilson, thanks to Alontae Taylor. With a limited arm, Wilson will have to keep the Vols honest by using his legs. Warrior is the perfect spy. Look for the Georgia native to feast on that game plan and wreak havoc on Wilson.
I know it is hard to believe, but Tennessee is actually a touchdown underdog at home against Kentucky. But, don’t let that fool you, the Vols will show up for the first time against a conference opponent in Knoxville this season. So far, Tennessee has been road warriors. Sooner or later, something has to give. There are only two home games left. Even though it is likely, it is still hard to fathom Tennessee going winless at home against conference opponents for two straight years.
This is the week they get it done.
With the exception of Alabama, the Vols have covered the last three conference games. This game will be close. The under for this game is currently 42.5 at MyBookie. Kentucky games have hit the under in six of the last seven conference meetings. By keeping the Wildcats’ rushing attack in check, the Vols will have an opportunity for a big win. Ultimately, they get it done.
Vols by a field goal.