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Show Me My Opponent: Kentucky

Show Me My Opponent: Kentucky


Underdog stories are generally supposed to be fun, cute things. Some people find themselves annoyed by these stories very quickly; myself, I enjoy just about anything that upsets the apple cart in college athletics. Butler’s dual championship runs? Loved ’em! Boise State’s Statue of Liberty play? Cheered it on in real time. UConn winning the NCAA Tournament as a 7 seed? Less tolerable, but it was hard to dislike Shabazz Napier. There’s a few rare exceptions to this rule, but it takes something special for me to truly get sick of an underdog story.

All that said, I hate this Kentucky team. It’s nice that they made it to the top ten for a week, just like they did in 2007, but that team was far more enjoyable to watch than this one. 2018 Kentucky’s idea of offense is to take their exceptional tailback Benny Snell, a probable second-round pick, and run him into the ground as much as humanly possible. Kentucky is one of two non-triple option teams in America (Wisconsin) where the lead rusher has more rushing attempts than the quarterback has attempted passes.

Snell is exceptional, that shouldn’t be discounted. But what about watching a running back having to fall forward for five yards after getting hit at the line of scrimmage 20+ times a game is enjoyable? Considering that defenses have figured out Kentucky’s entire game plan, I’m not sure what the positive is.

What about a quarterback who’s thrown as many touchdowns (6) as interceptions and has picked up the lowest amount of 10+ yard gains through the air in the SEC? (Fun fact: Alabama has nearly double Kentucky’s 10+ yard pass plays, 113 to 57.) (Other fun fact: Rutgers and Kentucky have the same number of 10+ yard pass plays. Rutgers completed 2 of 20 passes in a game this year.) Of Terry Wilson’s 29 attempts against the Georgia defense, 24 were within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. No wonder he completed 79.3% of his passes.

This offense hasn’t topped 17 points since September, and it’s topped 28 against an FBS opponent once all year. In a just world, this is 2008 Tennessee with worse checkerboards. And somehow this team is 7-2, 5-2 in SEC play. 2018 is very, very stupid. Only San Diego State has more wins when scoring 28 points or fewer, and no one’s ever confused them for a football viewer’s paradise. Per Bill Connelly, the Wildcats offensive percentile performance over the last five games: 30%, 10%, 27%, 9%, 27%. They won three of those five games despite getting a C-minus effort at very best in any of them offensively.

This is because Kentucky now suddenly fields one of the ~13 best defenses in the nation. The Wildcats rank 6th in Defensive S&P+, 22nd in yards per play allowed overall, 13th in yards per play allowed to opponents with winning records, 8th in Red Zone Touchdown Rate, and T-8th in opponent plays of 10+ yards. Other than third downs, which they’ve been surprisingly poor at (91st in average third down distance, 92nd in third down success rate), it’s a legitimately very good defense.

So, to recap: Kentucky is fielding a team that literally matches up perfectly with 2008 Tennessee (also 108th in offense and 6th in defense per S&P+). The difference: one of those teams went 3-1 in one-score games. The other went 1-3. Also Benny Snell doesn’t fumble and he likes tacos.


OFFENSE

Terrible Terry

Look, he’s not actually terrible. It’s more an alliteration thing, which helps make watching him a little more bearable. Let’s be honest, though: anyone with eyes can see his work downfield leaves an impressively large amount to be desired.

What Wilson ends up doing is almost a more extreme version of what Tyson Helton’s done with Jarrett Guarantano. Of Wilson’s 182 attempts on the season, an astounding 127 (69.8%) of them have been in the air for 9 yards or less. Guarantano’s in that same range, but even he’s attempted nine more deep (20+ yards) passes on the year than Wilson. As such, that’s how Wilson has completed 68% of his passes and has thrown just one interception in his last 89 attempts, but is still a liability. During both the Vanderbilt and Missouri games (and, likely, the Georgia game), I noticed numerous fans calling for Gunnar Hoak (real name!) to take over. Hoak’s been no more impressive, but it sure sounds a lot like the Gitmo/Chryst crisis.

The difference there is one quarterback is 7-2 and the other is 4-5. That’s how passes like these:

Can be forgotten if you make passes like this:

The old adage still holds true: winners win games. I also can’t discount that Wilson adds a lot with his legs (532 yards on 83 carries). On average, he’s been running it about nine times per game, but with Snell likely being less than 100% for the game, I expect this number to increase to 12-15 carries. Hoak likely won’t play, but on the off chance he does, he appears to be a better downfield thrower who’s less consistent with hitting short passes. I’d guess it’s a tiny upgrade in the passing game, but Hoak can’t run so you lose the ability to make defenses think anyone other than Snell’s keeping that ball.

Benjamin Snell, Jr.

This is from last year, but it may as well have been copied from any game in 2018:

This is one of Kentucky’s favorite formations in the playbook: Snell at Wildcat, with Wilson motioning to the left or right. Every single person in the stadium knows what’s coming, and it’s on Snell to make the most of it. Prior to the meat of the SEC schedule, he largely was.

  • First three games: 191 of 375 yards after contact (50.9%)
  • Last six games: 140 of 633 yards after contact (22.1%)

Snell’s season-long yardage totals are still solid (1,008 in 9 games, 5.07 YPC), but it’s clear that he’s simply not getting the room he needs to anymore. Snell’s averaged four yards or fewer per carry in three of the last five games, and Missouri and Georgia effectively bottled him up throughout (26% and 35% success rates on the ground versus, for example, a 41% success rate against Florida and 44% against Mississippi State). Now that Kentucky’s shown all the cards they’ve got and have nothing very new to offer, it isn’t as hard to stop him.

Keep in mind that Snell’s still been pretty good. He’s gained at least 60 yards in every game this year and has never dipped below 3.5 yards per carry, meaning even when he’s been contained, he’s still done some small amounts of damage. Kentucky’s also been very consistent in their Offensive Stuff Rate (run plays stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage) in a 13-19% range, so even on bad plays, he’s still getting a couple yards at a time. The fear with Snell isn’t necessarily an explosive play; it’s getting worn down, five yards at a time.

As mentioned earlier, Snell is fighting a nagging injury. If he is unable to play as much, this benefits Tennessee. Backup Asim Rose is much different: he’s lighter and taller than Snell and quite a bit more explosive, but also more prone to fumbling (averaging a fumble every 24 carries) and has been mostly unheard of since the South Carolina game. His October: 15 carries, 33 yards, zero touchdowns.

Lynn Bowden and no one else

If you look up “safety valve” in the dictionary, you are greeted with a smiling Lynn Bowden.

Of Kentucky’s 135 completed passes in 2018, Bowden has caught 49. He’s been targeted 57 times, meaning he catches nearly everything thrown at him. (I don’t have the number here, but 49 of 57, or 86%, has to be one of the three highest catch rates by a receiver with 50+ targets in America.) Bowden does all this work and still has just three touchdown catches this year, but it’s probably to be expected considering 70% of his yards (364 of 521, per CFB Film Room) have come after the catch, the second-highest rate in the SEC. The best thing you can say about this offense is that it 100% knows who its playmakers are, and if that means they have zero concern about fooling opposing defenses, so be it.

Overall, you know what you’re getting

Barring some sort of trick play, this is the exact same offense with almost zero variations that Kentucky has run since week one. I watched the Central Michigan, Florida, Texas A&M, and Missouri games in full, and noticed almost zero differences in play calling or downfield activity. It’s Snell, Bowden, and Wilson, and no one else. Stoops has who he has, and lucky or not, he’s winning.


DEFENSE

Weak defensive line…

Strangely, this exceptional defense has a pretty forgettable group up front. The leading tackler (Phil Hoskins, DT) ranks 11th on the team in tackles, while no lineman has more than 3.5 run stuffs, 2.5 TFLs, or 2 sacks. It’s a thoroughly mediocre three-man front, on the occasions when they do only rush three men. No one cares about this, because they’re

…backed up by the best “linebacker” in America

I hesitate to call Josh Allen a linebacker, because he’s technically your average 3-4 edge rusher a la DeMarcus Ware. Whatever I’m supposed to call him, he’s incredible:

Allen’s 2018 stats read like the defensive end on NCAA Football that you send on an overload edge rush every single snap. So far, he’s accumulated 47.5 tackles, 14.5 of those for loss. He’s sacked opposing quarterbacks ten times, including three sacks of Jake Bentley alone. 16 of his tackles were run stuffs. He’s forced five fumbles; the rest of Kentucky’s team has forced six. He has four pass breakups. Kentucky ranks 81st in tackles for loss nationally with Josh Allen on their team. If his stats were replaced by a body double of Kash Daniel, the other beloved linebacker, Kentucky would rank 123rd.

Make no mistake: Kentucky has more than Allen on defense. Daniel is the team’s spiritual leader, Jordan Jones has four TFLs and seven run stuffs, and Jamar Watson has four sacks. It would be a good group even without Allen. It might be the nation’s best group because of him.

Secondary’s really good, too

A note: Kentucky does give up a strangely high amount of third down conversions, has been terrible at giving up big plays on passing downs, and struggles to get to the quarterback when they absolutely need to. And yet this defense is still excellent, not least because of a secondary that’s been excellent itself.

Of the 123 incompletions forced by Kentucky in 2018, 49 have been deflected (39.8%), the 18th-best rate in the nation. Five different players have deflected three or more passes, and Darius West has been a shutdown safety: three interceptions, six pass breakups. Teams are 4 of 35 on passes longer than 20+ yards against Kentucky in 2018. If Tennessee just copies the South Carolina gameplan (they will), who can blame them?


SPECIAL TEAMS

Bad kicker, good punter

Miles Butler was the placekicker at the start of the season. He started 2 of 2. He then missed four of his next five and got yanked prior to the Missouri game by Mark Stoops. Now, it’s true freshman Chance Poore, who’s only attempted two field goals, making both from 31 and 34 yards. While Poore certainly seems to be better, it’s anyone’s guess as to what happens when he’s asked to kick from 40 yards or further. This figures to be a low-scoring game, so I anticipate Stoops gets aggressive on any fourth down outside of the red zone. He went for it four times against Missouri and Georgia, converting zero.

Max Duffy, the punter, has hit 16 of 42 of his punts inside the 20-yard line with only two touchbacks. Pretty good! However, 16 of his punts have been returned, and the return average on those is 13.3 yards. Bias is in play here, but I’d take Joe Doyle in a punt-off. The real takeaway is that Marquez Callaway might have another shot at a special teams touchdown if Duffy outkicks his coverage. If nothing else, I’d take 13 yards on a return for once.

Lynn Bowden has returned two punts this year, both against Missouri. One went for a touchdown that was their only touchdown prior to the final untimed play. I can’t tell if he’s replaced David Bouvier, who returned all of Kentucky’s punts prior to Missouri, but he has more yards on that one return than Bouvier has all season. Bowden has been the kickoff returner as well, where he’s flashed occasional skill with a pair of 30+ yard returns. Bowden’s skill set is more shiftiness than pure afterburner, so it makes sense that he’d be a better punt returner. Anyway, that could be an issue, but Doyle and Charles Kelly have been absurdly good at keeping the ball away from opposing returners. I’d be surprised if something different happens here.


CONCLUSION

The basic story: 2018 Tennessee gets to face almost the exact replica of 2008 Tennessee in 44-degree weather under sunny skies. Please don’t start badly, or else that crowd’s gonna dip as soon as the sun drops.

Key Matchups: Tennessee’s Offensive Line Versus Josh Allen. Yes, all five members of the offensive line. Allen will line up wherever he wants, though from what I saw, he tends to line up on the left side more often. He should, because Tennessee has a serious left tackle crisis with Marcus Tatum. Tennessee will almost certainly run six and seven-man protection for Guarantano in this game; limiting Allen to one TFL at best would honestly be a giant victory.

Jarrett Guarantano Versus Downfield Passing. I seem to be in a limited camp that thinks Gitmo has been good this year, but even I’ll admit there is no real reason for him to be attempting more than a couple deep balls this week. It’s going to be cold, and winds always swirl in Neyland. A deep ball that’s off by a yard could easily turn into an armpunt against this defense, and Lord knows Tennessee’s fat guys aren’t gonna stop a safety from running one back.

Tennessee’s Rushing Attack Versus 3+ YPC. That’s an extraordinarily low bar to cross, but this is Tennessee’s rushing offense, which has the same amount of force as when you hit a parking garage wall at 2 MPH. The two games Kentucky’s lost were game in which they gave up 164 and 331 yards on the ground. I would be floored if Tennessee got to triple-digits, but that’s part of the path offensively.

Tennessee’s Pass Rush Versus Terry Wilson. Like everyone else, I’d originally chalked this up as a loss, because you’d generally assume Wilson can just scramble for six yards or whatever. However:

Wilson seems to have a Gitmo-like issue of recognizing pressure. He’ll run, of course, but it doesn’t seem like he runs enough. Tennessee may have an opportunity here.

Bryce Thompson? Baylen Buchanan? Versus Lynn Bowden. Kentucky does not have a serious downfield threat of any consistency. Wilson hates throwing the ball further than 10 yards. Therefore, the plan on passing downs should be simple: when Bowden runs his array of short routes, stick to him like glue. I trust Thompson more, but Buchanan has been quietly solid lately.

Knowing What’s Coming Versus What’s Coming. He may not even have to be 80% to run the ball 25+ times in this game, but regardless: you know that Benny Snell, if he can play, will run it a lot. You know that Terry Wilson can’t chuck it. You know that Lynn Bowden is the only receiving threat. Considering he’s had to figure out how to stop Georgia, West Virginia, Alabama, Auburn, and, yes, Florida, this is one of the easier scouts Jeremy Pruitt will have as a former coordinator. It’s up to his players to make the best of it, and up to him and Kevin Sherrer to know how to use them best.

CHANGE THE CHANNEL AND GO OUTSIDE IF:

  • Terry Wilson completes a deep pass.
  • Benny Snell is getting six yards every time he touches the ball.
  • Tyson Helton’s offense runs it up the middle seven times for -4 yards.

DO THE MR. BURNS FINGER THING IF:

  • Tennessee is at 50 rushing yards or more at halftime.
  • Eddie Gran asks Terry Wilson to drop back on 3rd and 12.
  • Kentucky fans start asking if they can run the Max Roark offense in the second quarter.

Of all the games I’ve previewed in the last three seasons, this was, by far, the easiest. Kentucky does nothing special on offense, though Snell and Bowden are special players. Their offensive line is pretty middling. All of their opponents know exactly what they’re running and when. They haven’t topped 20 points in six weeks. Defensively, it’s the same defense Stoops has ran for six seasons, just with an all-world player boosting his fortunes.

Tennessee, in 2018, probably isn’t a good team. They’ve faced an absolutely brutal schedule, but I’d wager they’ve played one complete-ish game on both sides of the ball: Auburn. Their offensive performance against Charlotte was worthy of 2017 UMass. And yet: Kentucky is simply so predictable on offense and their flaws so visualized that I really, truly think Tennessee has a great chance at a win.

Maybe it’s a good thing Tennessee gets to play a former version of themselves. Kentucky will likely get to at least 8 wins, if not 9, but this is the game that seals the deal on 10-2 for them. (I honestly, legitimately think they have a much larger chance of losing to MTSU than they do to Louisville.) For Tennessee, this greatly improves their odds of a bowl game, and makes next week’s Missouri game far less anxiety-inducing. On a 1 to 10 must-win scale, this is at least a 9, and more likely a 10 – regardless of the scenario, it is purely unacceptable to lose to Kentucky, much less lose at home to Kentucky. Eventually, the theoretical athleticism Tennessee has on defense should rear its head. Eventually, Kentucky will look a lot more like their S&P+ ranking (37th) than their AP ranking (12th). Here’s a swing in the dark that this happens this week. Tennessee 17, Kentucky 16.

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Will Warren is a contributor to FOX Sports Knoxville. He loves Popeyes, computers, the Nashville Predators, and melatonin.

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