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Five keys to Vol victory over Wildcats

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Through good times and bad, you could almost always count on Tennessee to beat Kentucky.

From 1985 to 2020, the Vols won every game – two in overtime.

From 2011 to 2022, Kentucky won three times – once with a wide receiver playing quarterback, once behind running back Benny Snell and once when Jarrett Guarantano threw two pick-sixes in the first half.

That’s three Wildcat wins in the past 38 years.

Last year, when Kentucky had talented Will Levis at quarterback, the Vols clobbered the Cats 44-6.

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But, as Vols coach Josh Heupel says, last year’s game has nothing to do with this year’s game.

Tennessee will be challenged to bounce back from a gut-wrenching loss at Alabama. In UT’s last 15 defeats to Alabama, the Vols are 6-9, including 2-1 against Kentucky.

What are the keys for the Vols (5-2, 2-2 SEC) at Kentucky (5-2, 2-2) Saturday at 7 pm in the Commonwealth?

Contain Kentucky running back Ray Davis.

Davis rushed for 280 yards against a Florida defense that held the Vols to a season-low 100 rushing yards. The Temple/Vanderbilt transfer leads the SEC in conference games only with 136.3 rushing yards – 30 more than the runner-up. He leads the SEC in scoring with 13 touchdowns and 11.14 points per game – the only non-kicker in the top eight. Davis also has five receiving touchdowns. UT’s run defense is fifth in the SEC (109.9).

Run the ball effectively.

The Vols lead the SEC at 217.3 rush yards per game. Kentucky is second in run defense (95.7). UT ran for 232 yards against the then-No. 1 run defense in Texas A&M. Don’t expect 232 against Kentucky but over 150 should get the job done.

Score touchdowns in the red zone.

UT was one-for-four inside the 20 against Alabama. It proved costly. Instead of a 28-7 halftime lead at Bama, it was 20-7, a deficit Alabama quickly erased in the third quarter. This would require quarterback Joe Milton to run the ball on a zone-read or quarterback draw. Handing off up the middle with no threat of a QB run won’t get it done – especially close to the goal line.

Pressure Kentucky quarterback Devin Leary.

UT is second in the SEC with 28 sacks (4.0 per game). Leary has been sacked 11 times, but more importantly, he has completed only 54.4% of his passes for just 1,377 yards and seven interceptions – tied for most in the SEC. He’s been a major disappointment, although he’s been beset by numerous drops. Leary doesn’t rank among the top 10 SEC quarterbacks in hardly any category and he can be forced to be inaccurate under duress.

A solid performance from Milton.

Milton doesn’t have to be great, he just has to complete more than 60% of his passes, make good decisions and run at opportune times. Against Alabama, discounting sacks, Milton ran 12 times for 93 yards and lowered his shoulder to pick up extra yards. If Milton plays against Kentucky like he did against Alabama, Tennessee will get the win.

Prediction: Tennessee 31, Kentucky 27.

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