It’s almost football time in the Bluegrass again. Here are some final thoughts about how Kentucky’s matchup with Tennessee could play out Saturday at Kroger Field:
I believe UK head coach Mark Stoops when he says that speculation about him being considered for the open position at Florida State won’t affect the team on the field. I don’t necessarily believe that players on the team haven’t talked about it among themselves, nor that he hasn’t in some way acknowledged it with them — even if it’s jokingly or bringing it up informally, that still counts in my book.
It feels like every week Kentucky is at a crucial juncture of its season, but at 4-4 and with arguably the toughest opponent remaining on the schedule immediately in front of it, that especially holds true this week. A win over Tennessee virtually ensures the Wildcats of a bowl trip, gives them their first win streak since the opening weeks of the season and puts them in position to finish 2019 on a high note few deemed realistic after losing Terry Wilson to a season-ending knee injury back in September, and even fewer thought possible after injuries began to wage war against Sawyer Smith’s arm.
The only way the Seminoles could distract the Wildcats from Tennessee is if Stoops had spent the week being wined and dined in Tallahassee. A poor showing as a favorite last year in Knoxville still sits heavy with many in the locker room. Who has time to worry about what’s happening in the Atlantic Coast Conference when that taste is still in your mouth?
“Last year we know we didn’t play our best, so it’s a big game for us,” said linebacker Jamar “Boogie” Watson. “We’re kind of juiced up this week and hope to redeem ourselves. ... I wouldn’t take anything away from how they played, but I feel like we could’ve played a lot better, could’ve had a lot more energy and (been) a lot more physical.
“I definitely think we’re gonna play that way this game.”
Bowden’s improvisational skills as a runner are what make him so lethal against college defenses, and he’s earned co-Offensive Player of the Week honors in the Southeastern Conference twice already thanks to his craftiness. A 200-yard rushing night against Missouri seemed unfathomable, especially with rain reducing the Cats’ playbook even further, and presumably making them easier to defend. Yet, they weren’t.
Still, look for Kentucky to throw a few more times against Tennessee than in its last couple of rain-soaked contests, if not out of necessity than out of opportunity. The Volunteers are basically identical to Missouri in terms of rushing yardage allowed per game (they’re less than a yard worse at 137.7, good for eighth in the league) but have been far more vulnerable through the air, giving up 213.3 yards per game (Mizzou is far and away No. 1 in the SEC at 144.5).
Chances to strike should be there, even if Ahmad Wagner — who suffered a leg injury against the Tigers — remains limited. There are a number of available receivers itching to take advantage of a situation wherein they could earn more catches than have been available the last few weeks. Bowden seemed excited when asked about what we could see from Kentucky’s passing attack this weekend.
“It’s gonna be fun,” Bowden said with a grin. “I might be back at receiver, y’all never know what’s going on.”
I’m going to go out on a limb and say senior linebacker Kash Daniel isn’t a fan of the Big Orange. Here’s betting he has a big effort in his final showing against the Volunteers.
Daniel, who was Kentucky’s 2015 Mr. Football winner following his final season at Paintsville High School, missed the first game of his career two weekends ago after an undisclosed injury ended his night early at Georgia. UK’s coaches say he’s ready to go this week, and even though Chris Oats and DeAndre Square have done more than hold their own at the middle linebacker spots, having Daniel back in the mix can’t be discounted in a rivalry matchup.
It’s been something of a rough season for Daniel, who was front and center during the preseason and has been a fan favorite since before arriving on campus. He’s not been available to the media since Anklegate and has had injuries hamper his final go-around. College football fans who don’t like his in-your-face antics might not like to hear it, but Daniel, the player, could use a personal win this week.
And what better team for him to re-emerge against than Tennessee? A strip sack, a pick-six, maybe a surprise appearance at fullback on a fourth-and-goal — none of it would surprise.
Kentucky 27, Tennessee 20: There’s a lot on the line for both teams. Kentucky has a chance to finish the season with five straight wins, but so do the Vols, who need to win two of their final three contests to attain bowl eligibility for the first time since 2016. UK arguably has been the more competent football program this decade but has defeated Tennessee just twice in nine meetings since it started. As much as this game can improve its stature this year, a win can also put more glow on the Cats, nationally.