For all the pre-season hype about Florida's Tim Tebow and Mississippi's Jevan Snead, it's been Arkansas' Ryan Mallett and Tennessee senior Jonathan Crompton who have been the Southeastern Conference's best quarterbacks down the stretch. Crompton's 25 TD passes are tied for the fourth-most in UT single-season history. The UK offense hasn't asked true freshman Morgan Newton to do much in the passing game, but Newton is 5-1 as a starter.
Back in September, when the Volunteers' offense was laboring, senior tailback Montario Hardesty was the one constant. The 6-foot, 215-pound senior is even more dangerous now that the passing game has come around. He ran for a career-high 171 yards in Tennessee's win over Vanderbilt last week. Kentucky's Derrick Locke added another chapter to his outstanding junior season with 245 all-purpose yards at Georgia last week.
Both teams are strong in the trenches. Tennessee has allowed an SEC-best 11 sacks, and UK isn't far behind with 14. Kentucky is slightly better in the running game and hasn't dropped back to pass quite as much since quarterback Mike Hartline went down with a knee injury. Both units are experienced: UT starts four seniors up front and Kentucky three.
Tennessee's receiving corps was riddled by injury early in the year, but the production went up dramatically once Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore got healthy. The Vols also have a threat at tight end in Madison Southern product Luke Stocker. Randall Cobb's production has gone down in recent weeks as he's battled thumb and shoulder injuries, but freshman La'Rod King has started to emerge as a threat.
Tennessee tackle Dan Williams has enjoyed a breakout senior season, wreaking havoc in the interior with 81/2 tackles for loss, two sacks and nine quarterback hurries. Junior Chris Walker (81/2 tackles for loss, six sacks) has been a playmaker at end. UK tackle Corey Peters has been the Wildcats' anchor with 11 tackles for loss and four sacks.
Senior Micah Johnson was the headliner coming into the season, and he has performed well. But fellow senior Sam Maxwell has been arguably the Wildcats' best linebacker in 2009. His five interceptions and seven pass deflections rank among the SEC's best, and he's forced two fumbles. UT surrounds senior veteran Rico McCoy with a pair of freshmen in Greg King and Herman Lathers.
Kentucky standout cornerback Trevard Lindley has been back in the lineup for three games after missing four with a high ankle sprain, but he still doesn't seem like himself. The Cats have given up 15 TDs but have 15 interceptions. Tennessee has picked off nine balls while giving up just five touchdowns. It also has the nation's best defensive back in Eric Berry and welcomes back freshman Janzen Jackson to the starting lineup after he missed two games before being cleared for his alleged involvement in an attempted armed robbery.
UK has the advantage in the return game with Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke. UT kicker Daniel Lincoln has been spotty (10-for-16), including just 1-for-6 from 40 yards or longer. The Wildcats did control field position last week against Georgia, and place-kicker Lones Seiber, a Knoxville native, will try to erase the ghosts from Tennessee games past.