One of college football’s oldest rivalries reignites Saturday with Tennessee at Kentucky. This series started in 1893. With a couple of exceptions for World Wars, it’s been played every year since 1906.
The ancient grudge match is also one of college football’s most lopsided rivalries, with the Volunteers up 81-26-9 in the series. But the latest NCAAF betting lines have the Wildcats favored by 3. Kentucky won handily last year—can they make it two in a row?
Tennessee at Kentucky: Overview
The Vols enter the game at 4-4 off of a bye week following a drubbing in Tuscaloosa. The Wildcats come in at 6-2 but are reeling after two straight losses, neither of which was close.
Both of these teams are a bit enigmatic in 2021. Tennessee, under first-year head coach Josh Heupel, has looked promising at times. However, with one-possession home losses to two good teams in Pitt and Ole Miss, they could easily be 6-2 and ranked in the top 20.
Kentucky, on the other hand, started 6-0 only to lose two straight. And while the first of those was a decent showing on the road at Georgia, the number 1 team in the country, last week’s loss at Mississippi State was more puzzling.
When Tennessee has the ball, it will be strength against strength, and when Kentucky has the ball, it will be a weakness against weakness. ESPN’s FPI has the win probability nearly even, with a slight edge towards Tennessee. Something has to give.
Tennessee Offense vs. Kentucky Defense
Tennessee averages over 37 points per game with nearly 460 yards per game of total offense. They are led by Hendon Hooker, a transfer from Virginia Tech, who took over for original starter Joe Milton after the latter suffered a leg injury.
Milton has since returned to full health, but the Vols stuck with Hooker, and it’s paid off. He is completing 68.7% of his passes with over 1500 yards and 17 touchdowns despite not being the season-opening starter. More importantly, he’s only thrown two picks.
Kentucky has a defensive-minded coach in Mark Stoops and gives up just under 21 points and 340 yards per game. But in their two losses, they’ve been exposed, surrendering some long drives and big plays.
Tennessee Defense vs. Kentucky Offense
Offensively, Kentucky has struggled under eccentric quarterback Will Levis, who completes over 66% of his passes but hasn’t been able to rack up a lot of yards. Unfortunately, their rushing attack hasn’t been enough to compensate for this, and they average just 27 points on a little over 366 yards per game. In their two losses, the Wildcats scored just 10 and 13 points offensively.
Levis has been prone to interceptions, with nine on the year. The Wildcats have lost seven fumbles as well and have a turnover margin of -12. If Kentucky can’t clean this up, Tennessee can take advantage.
However, Tennessee’s defense averages 26.5 points and almost 400 yards allowed per game. So if there’s a team Kentucky can gain some offensive confidence against, it’s this one.
What’s at Stake
Georgia clinched the SEC East last week, so Kentucky is out of that race. But if they win out the rest of the season, they should earn a berth in a New Year’s Six Bowl, a first for the school. At 4-4, Tennessee is playing for pride against a hated rival and for bowl eligibility.
The game is in Lexington, where the Wildcats haven’t lost since Halloween of 2020. It’s easy to write off Kentucky as a basketball school, but it would be a mistake to say they will have no home-field advantage, despite how well Tennessee fans travel. A raucous Wildcat crowd decisively influenced this year’s win over Florida.
Based on the analysis above, I have these teams essentially even. However, since it’s a rivalry game, you can bet the fans will make their presence felt, and with that in mind, I’m picking Kentucky to win this year’s Tennessee at Kentucky game in a close one.
I have the spread as too close to call. However, since Kentucky wins are low-scoring, with an over-under of 58.5, I’m picking the under bet. Do you think Kentucky can cover or that Tennessee will pull off the upset? Sign up for an account at BetMGM’s Tennessee sports betting site today.