Don’t be fooled into thinking Saturday’s college football matchup at Kroger Field between two teams that each lost by 38 points last week lacks a compelling sense of intrigue. Not when a regressing Kentucky defense will face a reeling Tennessee offense.
You remember the Kentucky defense? The one under head coach and former defensive boss Mark Stoops played so well through the season’s first five games only to give up a combined 79 points, 34 to Missouri and 45 to Mississippi State, its last two outings.
And, despite evidence to the contrary, Tennessee actually has an offense. It’s just that the Vols have apparently forgotten the location of the end zone considering the embattled Butch Jones’s team — an unwritten rule states the Volunteers’ head coach must be referred to at all times as “embattled” — has gone 14 consecutive quarters without scoring a touchdown.
“We’re ready to explode,” said Tennessee’s redshirt freshman quarterback Jarrett Guarantano this week.
That may be the case, but as the border rivals prepare to lace them up Saturday, a little background on how we got to this point.
Start with Tennessee, where the Vols have been victimized by Mike DeBord’s grandchildren. DeBord is the former UT offensive coordinator who coached the Volunteers to single-season records for points and touchdowns a year ago, only to leave for the OC job at Indiana to be closer to his grandchildren in the Hoosier State.
That prompted Jones to promote tight ends coach Larry Scott to offensive coordinator even though the Florida native and former South Florida star had not called plays since he was co-OC at Sebring (Fla.) High School back in 2004. It shows.
To be fair, it hasn’t helped Scott’s cause that the Vols lost four of their best offensive players from a year ago in quarterback Josh Dobbs, running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, plus wide receiver Josh Malone. At the NFL Combine, Malone told the media he decided to give up his senior season because he didn’t want to go through the growing pains of UT’s new young quarterbacks.
Malone was right and then some. Quinten Dormady, a junior, started the first five games only to be replaced by Guarantano, a redshirt freshman who was considered the nation’s best dual-threat quarterback prospect when he committed to UT out of New Jersey. But in his two starts, the 15-9 loss to South Carolina and 45-7 loss to No. 1-ranked Alabama, the Vols settled for three field goals against the Gamecocks and an interception return for a TD against the Crimson Tide.
To add insult to injury, Tennessee’s best offensive player, running back John Kelly, was suspended for Saturday’s game after being cited Tuesday night for marijuana possession during a traffic stop in Knoxville. (Backup linebacker Will Ignont also was suspended.)
That brings us to Kentucky, where UK’s run defense has slipped from third nationally (before a 40-34 win over Missouri) to 10th and now 26th (after the 45-7 bashing at Mississippi State) after the Bulldogs rolled up 282 yards on the ground in Starkville.
What gives? For starters, both Missouri and Mississippi State featured more potent offenses than the Cats had faced previously. And last Saturday UK was coming off a bye week, one in which Stoops thinks his team lost its edge.
“To me, it’s mentally being prepared and being sharp mentally,” said the coach on Wednesday’s SEC teleconference. “And I didn’t think we had it this past week. They’ve come out this week in practice and been much more consistent. And hopefully it will carry over to Saturday.”
It must. Kentucky surely does not want to be the defense that allows Tennessee to emerge from its prolonged funk.
“It’s about us,” Stoops said Wednesday. “We can’t control what plays Tennessee calls and how they go about running their offense. We have to apply our rules and make competitive plays. So it’s really about us and our preparation.”
One team will feel better about itself after Saturday, but which will it be?
Tennessee football 2017
Kentucky football 2017