Mark Story

In struggling Tennessee, Mark Stoops faces a tricky moment of truth

Given the unique circumstances in the pregame “set up” of Kentucky’s football game with Tennessee Saturday, UK Coach Mark Stoops finds himself in a tricky spot.
Given the unique circumstances in the pregame “set up” of Kentucky’s football game with Tennessee Saturday, UK Coach Mark Stoops finds himself in a tricky spot. aslitz@herald-leader.com

Except for 2001, I’ve covered every Kentucky-Tennessee football game since 1994.

Before that, I either listened on the radio or watched on TV every pigskin meeting between the Wildcats and Volunteers since 1973.

In all that time, I’ve never seen a game with Tennessee “set up” in a more tricky way for a Kentucky coach than what Mark Stoops faces this year.

In a series in which UT has won 31 of the past 32 games, UK (5-2, 2-2 SEC) is nevertheless favored by as much as 5.5 points (source: Oddsshark) for Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. game at Kroger Field.

Tennessee (3-4, 0-4 SEC) comes to Lexington mired in an astounding offensive slump. The Volunteers have played seven straight halves — seven! — without scoring an offensive touchdown.

Out of 129 FBS teams, Tennessee ranks 107th in rushing offense, 111th in passing offense, 125th in total offense, 116th in scoring offense, 117th in third-down conversions and 122nd in red zone offense.

If Tennessee’s offense was not challenged enough, UT running back John Kelly, the Volunteers’ leading rusher (615 yards) and receiver (26 catches), is suspended for the UK game after getting a marijuana citation from Knoxville police following a traffic stop Tuesday.

With so much going wrong, Volunteers Coach Butch Jones has an industrial propane torch beneath his coaching seat.

Yet it is the perception of Tennessee weakness that puts Stoops in a bit of a pickle.

I’ve been kicking around planet Earth since 1964. In all that time, Kentucky has beaten Tennessee in football a whopping six times — 1964, 1976, 1977, 1981, 1984 and 2011 (ladies and gentlemen, Matt Roark).

So any UK football victory over UT is a moment to relish.

This year, however, the Volunteers’ perceived flaws would somewhat devalue Kentucky beating UT. Yet that perception would make UK losing to Tennessee uncommonly detrimental for the Wildcats’ season.

As bad as Tennessee’s offensive numbers are, they are not that much worse — except for one category — than Kentucky’s.

Out of those 129 FBS teams, UK is 96th in the country in rushing offense, 85th in passing offense, 112th in total offense, 92nd in scoring offense, 63rd in third-down conversion percentage — and a very respectable 29th in red zone offense.

Unlike Kentucky, Tennessee can at least somewhat lay off its putrid offensive numbers on having already played the SEC’s two best teams, the unbeaten duo of Alabama and Georgia (Kentucky will play at Georgia on Nov. 18).

Since Stoops came to UK in 2013, nothing has gotten the engine of a Tennessee offense revving like the chance to go against a UK defense.

While going 0-4 vs. Tennessee under Stoops, UK is surrendering averages of 44.5 points and 502.3 yards a game to the Vols.

UK backers fervently hope Tennessee’s repeated strafing of Kentucky defenses in the Stoops era was primarily due to dual-threat UT QB Joshua Dobbs. Now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dobbs was personally responsible for 16 touchdowns (10 passing, six rushing) in Tennessee wins over the Cats the four prior seasons.

In past years, when it has been projected Kentucky has a good chance to beat Tennessee, the Cats oft seemed to play “tight.” Conversely, such talk seemed to insult and motivate the Vols.

This year, the Blue vs. Orange psychological matchup carries other complex variables.

Do the Tennessee players still believe in their embattled coach and will they lay it on the line over their final five games to try to save the job of Butch Jones?

Has doubt crept into Kentucky’s frame of mind after the Cats laid a dinosaur egg in a 45-7 loss at Mississippi State last week?

Most interesting of all is the situation facing UK’s Stoops.

The Kentucky head man finds himself as a favorite against a team his school has beaten only once in the past 32 meetings.

Yet because of Tennessee’s struggles this season, a UK win over UT may not carry as much weight with the Kentucky fan base as it normally would while a loss would be unusually damaging for Stoops.

In my memory, no Kentucky football coach has ever faced such a tricky dynamic going into a meeting with Tennessee.

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