Tennessee will make the drive up I-75 to Lexington on Saturday to face a Kentucky team that has defeated the Vols just once in the past three decades. But UT will make that trip as 5.5-point underdogs — the first time the Vols have been ‘dogs to Kentucky in 40 years.
UT is reeling, desperately needing a win to get its season back on track, while UK is also staggering somewhat after suffering a 45-7 backhand blow in Starkville, Miss., last week.
But the Wildcats are 5-2 this season, with their only other loss coming in unlikely fashion against Florida back on Sept. 16.
Can Tennessee pick up the road win in Lexington? It can, but the deck seems stacked against it. Here are four possible outcomes, and what they mean for Butch Jones.
1.) Tennessee wins in a blowout
This seems somewhat unlikely, given Tennessee’s inept offense, but what happens if UT throttles the Wildcats? It would take big performances by Ty Chandler and Carlin Fils-aime, along with a breakout performance by true freshman quarterback Jarrett Guarantano and a stellar effort from the Tennessee defense.
At this point, with the Vols off to an 0-4 start in conference play, a lifeless offense, and an outraged fan base, it would simply buy Butch Jones more time. Nothing more. Nothing less. A single win will not save Jones’ job at this point — even if that win comes against a pretty good Kentucky team (or, for that matter, a pretty good LSU team). It will take a collective effort to turn things around. A blowout win in Week 1 of what defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has described as a five-game playoff would be a good start, especially if it’s followed up by an even more convincing win over Southern Miss next week. The first step towards potentially changing what appears to have already been set in motion is for Jones to quieten the uproar from the fan base. This would be step one.
2.) Tennessee wins in a close one
If not for the suspension of star runningback John Kelly, we would consider this the most likely outcome. While Tennessee has had a rough season and are playing on the road, the Vols are still immensely more talented than Kentucky, and should be poised for an upset win in Lexington. Unfortunately, Kelly has been just about all the offense Team 121 can muster.
Still, this is a Kentucky team that has struggled at times this season, despite its impressive (relatively speaking, of course) record. The ‘Cats struggled to get past Southern Miss in the season opener, 24-17, and trailed for an uncomfortable amount of time before putting away Eastern Kentucky, 27-16. Then there was Eastern Michigan, which took the Wildcats to the wire, 24-20. Missouri hung 24 points on UK and came up a touchdown and an extra point away from winning.
Tennessee’s young, inexperienced playmakers will have to step up. But if that happens, a win is certainly possible. A close win would buy Jones some time, but would do nothing to lessen the scorching feel of his hot seat, in terms of job security. A close win — even against a rival — will appease no one and will be viewed by many as a simple prolonging of the inevitable. If he’s going to do himself any favors, Jones needs to win convincingly. Perhaps that seems unfair, given that Mark Stoops has this Kentucky team playing relatively well. But it is what is is. Tennessee’s performance to this point has led us down a path from which there is usually no return. It took extraordinary occurrences to get us to this point, and it will take extraordinary occurrences to reverse the course.
3.) Kentucky wins in a close one
This is the most likely outcome. Kentucky is 3-1 at Commonwealth Stadium this season, and should be 4-0, if not for Florida’s comeback from a two-touchdown deficit in the game’s waning minutes six weeks ago. Kentucky ranks 69th nationally on defense; Tennessee is 80th. The Wildcats give up 394 yards per game, Tennessee gives up 405 yards per game. Kentucky ranks 59th in scoring defense, giving up 25 points per game. Tennessee ranks 70th, giving up 27 points per game. On the offensive side of the ball, Kentucky ranks 112th, averaging 337 yards per game, while Tennessee is 125th, averaging 290 yards per game. The Wildcats score 25 points per game (92nd), the Vols score 20 points per game (116th).
There’s more, put the point is this: while neither of these are statistically great football teams, Kentucky out-ranks Tennessee in every category. On paper, there’s no reason to think the Vols are better than the Wildcats with John Kelly, let alone without him. For UT to win, there has to be a spark on offense. Jarrett Guarantano has given the Vols more options, but has thus far failed to provide that spark. Tennessee’s offense has failed to score a touchdown in eight quarters with Guarantano as the starter, and their nation-leading streak of quarters without a touchdown is now at a record-tying 14 straight.
The narrative going into this game is that a loss to Kentucky will seal Jones’ fate. We don’t necessarily believe that to be true, only because — as we wrote previously — we believe things have already been put into motion, and Tennessee and Jones expect to part ways after this season. However, based on current murmurings, it seems less than likely that Jones will be terminated at this point and someone on his staff promoted to interim head coach. That isn’t going to make the fan base happy, but don’t expect to see a John Currie press conference on Sunday or Monday just because Tennessee loses to Kentucky.
4.) Kentucky wins in a blowout
This should seem unlikely, but it’s more likely than a Tennessee blowout . . . and, frankly, probably more likely than either of the first two options. The bottom line is that Kentucky is a better team than Tennessee, on paper, even with John Kelly in the lineup. With the junior runningback suspended for this game due to his citation for marijuana possession earlier this week, it’s hard to imagine how Tennessee finds the firepower it needs on the offensive side of the ball to replicate any points Kentucky might score.
This one seems destined to be a low-scoring affair, with plenty of defense and not much offense. But what if Kentucky comes up with a couple of turnovers or a special teams score and blows the game open? What if Tennessee falls behind by a couple of scores early? It isn’t hard to envision scenarios in which the Vols find themselves in a situation that causes them to fold.
Should that happen, and Kentucky win this game by a lopsided margin, it becomes much more difficult for John Currie to retain Butch Jones. If Tennessee fails to find the end zone for a fourth consecutive game, it would be somewhat surprising if Jones is still the head coach on Monday.
We said prior to the Georgia game that this Oct. 28 game at Kentucky should be circled as the potential point at which Tennessee makes a change. Jones was never going to be fired prior to the Georgia game. He was never going to be fired before the South Carolina game, or before the Alabama game. This game has always loomed tall as one that matters for Jones’ future. At this point, we can no longer say that another loss won’t prompt change. And if it ends in an embarrassing fashion for Tennessee, we would expect change.