Before the Kentucky-Louisville game was moved to the end of the season to be part of the informal ACC-SEC football challenge, the Kentucky-Tennessee game used to be the year-ending game for each team. It might not have been one of the glitziest rivalries in the conference, and it certainly wasn't the most competitive, but it's spot at the end of the calendar was an indicator that it mattered on some level.
The game has now floated all the way back to the end of October, but this year's installment is perhaps as important to the programs as it has been in some time. And it comes after both teams have enjoyed a moment in the media darling spotlight, only to have it fade. Tennessee came in as a possible dark-horse contender in the SEC East, but the Vols stumbled out of the gate and have been passed by actual dark-horse Florida. The quick start to the season by Kentucky, meanwhile, gave the Wildcats a minute of "could they maybe" before losses to Florida, Auburn and Mississippi State pretty definitively answered the question.
That doesn't mean that there aren't some goals in reach, even if the goals are now diminished. But they all seem to hinge on this game. Win, and there's still a chance to look back on the year with a sense of satisfaction. Lose, and the expectations of August and September might be the only fond memories that fans have.
1Rocky Tops. Kentucky is on the losing side of some of the most lopsided rivalries in the SEC, but even by that standard the series against Tennessee is notable. Kentucky has beaten the Volunteers once since 1984 and five times since 1964. Even as Tennessee has struggled through the late Fulmer, Kiffin, Dooley and early Butch Jones eras, Kentucky has won a single time. It frequently hasn't even been close; during the recent streak in which Tennessee has won 29 of the last 30 games, only eight of the Vols' victories were by single digits.
2Battle for the Middle. Both of these teams have basically been eliminated from the race for the SEC East -- and both could be mathematically eliminated by the time the day is over -- but the pecking order in the division for things like bowls and more simply pride is far from set. A loss isn't going to knock either Tennessee or Kentucky out of the postseason; both are more likely than not to make it regardless of what happens here. But particularly with Jones facing pressure to show some progress during his third year in Knoxville, the difference in ending up at third in the division vs. checking in at fourth could be large.
3Off the Schneid. Both teams come into this game having had a rough go of it recently, but perhaps with different perspectives on their luck. Kentucky won four of its first five games before dropping its last two, including getting clubbed by 26 points last week in Starkville. The Wildcats are still on track to get to a bowl for the first time under Mark Stoops, which isn't anything, but the talk of an special season might have been premature. And while the Vols have three of their last four, some of them in heartbreaking fashion, the win against Georgia and near-win at Alabama over the last two weeks have to be encouraging. The team that wins this one has a great chance of getting to eight wins with a favorable schedule ahead.
Matt Bush -- USA Today Sports
4Expect Yardage. Or Maybe Not. There are five teams in the SEC that are allowing more than 5.5 yards per play. Two of them are in this game. The Wildcats defense is giving up 5.6 yards per play, which places them 10th in the SEC, and Tennessee is tied for 11th by yielding 5.7 yards a snap. The flip side of that is that neither offense is particularly good at generating much in the way of offense. UK has only managed 5.5 yards a play on that side of the ball, which also ranks 10th in the conference, and Tennessee is averaging a shade less than 5.5 yards every snap, which is also 11th. Anything from a defensive struggle to a barnburner is in play tonight. (Stats via cfbstats.com)
5Hold Onto the Ball. If the game comes down to turnover margin, it could be a particularly long day for Kentucky. The Vols are plus-3 in that department, mostly because they just don't give the ball away through the air. So far, Tennessee has throw interceptions on less than one percentage of its passing attempts. Meanwhile, the Cats have thrown picks on almost 4 percent of their passes, and have more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (8). That's the main reason that Kentucky has a negative-3 turnover margin; the Wildcats have only lost one fumble this year. In other words, the least luck-dependent turnovers are the ones causing UK's ball-security woes. (Stats via cfbstats.com)
THREE TO WATCH
Joshua Dobbs, QB, Tennessee: As goes Dobbs, so goes Tennessee's game. The Vols' three wins have come in Dobbs' three best games in terms of passer rating, and the reverse is true in Tennessee's losses. The Alabama game was Dobbs' best passer rating in a loss, but that was also one of the four games this year that Dobbs have averaged 1.5 yards or fewer rushing in a game, and Tennessee has lost three of those. Yes, strength of schedule has played into that -- still, if Dobbs has a good game, Tennessee should win. If not, you have to like Kentucky's chances.
Josh Forrest, LB, Kentucky: There are problems on the Kentucky defense, but Forrest isn't one of them. The senior leads the Wildcats in tackles (64), sacks (3.5) and tackles for loss (4.0). In addition to the sacks, Forrest has also hurried the quarterback twice. He's broken up five passes, intercepted another and forced a fumble -- all stats that rank either first or second on the team.
Jalen Reeves-Maybin, LB, Tennessee: The Vols also have a decent player to lead their linebacking corps. Reeves-Maybin has 10.5 tackles for loss this year -- that puts him on pace for almost 18 this season -- including 4.0 sacks. And he leads his team with 67 tackles, good for sixth in the conference (one spot ahead of Forrest). Kentucky will have to find a way to neutralize Reeves-Maybin if they're going to win.
Randy Sartin -- USA Today Sports
As you might have guessed by now, it's hard for me to know what to make of this game. Both of these teams have given us reason to believe they could win and reason to believe they could lose this game. But when you have a streak that's gone on for as long as Tennessee's dominance of the series has, it's hard to go in the other direction. In the past, in blowouts and in nailbiters, Tennessee has almost always come out on top. Tennessee 34, Kentucky 30