Once upon a time, November football found Kentucky forgotten—given up for basketball season—and Tennessee finishing on a division title and figuring out which New Year’s Day bowl they would appear in. Those days are gone. Saturday’s game at Kroger Field pits 4-4 Kentucky against 4-5 Tennessee.
For Kentucky, the season is still on an uptick. A disappointing run of losses with severely injured QB Sawyer Smith has given way to a pair of home SEC wins with wide receiver Lynn Bowden at quarterback. Some might remember that UT doesn’t have the best record against UK wide receivers-turned-quarterbacks, after Matt Roark ended UT’s 26-year streak with a 10-7 win for UK in 2011.
For Tennessee, the season has also trended up, with recent wins over South Carolina and Mississippi State keeping the Vols on the edge of the SEC bowl race. For once, November finds UK and UT pretty evenly matched.
The Vols struggled early, falling to 1-4 in a 43-14 loss to Georgia. But since that time, Tennessee has remained competitive. They have won three of their last four, with even their loss at Alabama coming by a relatively respectable 35-13 margin. Tennessee has a solid passing game, despite switch among three quarterbacks, any or all of whom could play in Lexington. Wide receiver Juaun Jennings has always had NFL talent, and with 47 catches for 722 yards and seven touchdowns, he’s showing it this year.
Defensively, UT is pretty average. They do give up a decent amount of yardage (351 per game). While UT has 13 interceptions (which leads the SEC) and 23 QB sacks (tied for second), they’re still 9th in pass defense efficiency and 8th in the league in rushing defense.
UT special teams have been quietly exceptional, as kicker Brett Cimaglia is having an all-SEC caliber season (connecting on 18 of 20 field goal tries) and the Vols lead the SEC in punt return average.
The Wildcats come in off a bye week following Lynn Bowden’s 204 yards rushing in a 29-7 win over Missouri. The Wildcats may have QB Sawyer Smith back (Smith did throw one pass against Mizzou) after an extra week to rest his various injuries. At this point, it’s hard to imagine that Kentucky would abandon the Bowden-at-QB offense, but it’s not hard to imagine Smith seeing a few series as a downfield passing threat to completement Bowden’s work (and maybe even throw a pass or two to Bowden).
Kentucky’s defense has made steady improvements throughout the season, and hasn’t given up more than 29 points this year to any opponent. Playing that way has enabled the Wildcats to stay competitive despite their massive pile of serious QB injuries. Given the various weaknesses of this Tennessee squad, it’s not hard to see this game being very competitive.
Before the season, back when Terry Wilson was the quarterback, I predicted a win for UK on its way to an eight-win regular season. The Wildcats could still reach that goal, and considering the path the season has taken, that is astounding.
It says here that UK finds just enough offense to get the W and all but seal a fourth straight bowl appearance.
UK 22, Tennessee 21
Other SEC game predictions:
Florida 38, Vanderbilt 17
Western Kentucky 24, Arkansas 21
LSU 36, Alabama 35
Mississippi 56, New Mexico State 10
Georgia 34, Missouri 14
South Carolina 31, Appalachian State 21
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County and has written eight books. His most recent, "A Fine Team Man: Jackie Robinson and the Lives He Changed," was released in February 2019 and can be ordered on Amazon or at many local bookstores. Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org