Kentucky has been quite the Southeastern Conference enigma the past two weekends, rushing for 408 yards during an overtime loss to Ole Miss and then compiling just 157 total yards last Saturday in a three-touchdown win over Mississippi State.
Tennessee third-year football coach Jeremy Pruitt doesn't see it that way entering this Saturday's noon showdown inside Neyland Stadium. He sees a Wildcats team that is closer to being undefeated at 1-2 than his No. 18 Volunteers, who are 2-1.
"They should probably be 3-0 if you look at them," Pruitt said Monday afternoon during his weekly Zoom news conference. "They lost a tough one against Ole Miss, and I think we all saw what happened down at Auburn and the play (at the end of the half) that was reviewed there. They very easily could be 3-0.
"They have been one of the better teams in our conference for the last several years. They are committed to running the football, and they believe in their plan."
Kentucky's 19-10 record since the start of the 2018 season is superior to Tennessee's 15-13 mark in that same frame under Pruitt, but the Vols have won the past two series meetings. The Vols have only lost twice to the Wildcats in the past 35 matchups.
Wildcats coach Mark Stoops was hired in November 2012, just days before Tennessee landed Butch Jones, who had 9-4 records in 2015 and 2016 before imploding in 2017 with the first eight-loss season in program history. Stoops went 2-10 in his debut season, but the 2018 Wildcats went 10-3 and had a winning league mark for the first time since 1977.
"They're a physical team that's disciplined, and they play well together, so it will be a tremendous challenge," Pruitt said.
Kentucky senior quarterback Terry Wilson leads the team in rushing with 221 yards and averages 4.6 yards per carry, but the Wildcats are playing without redshirt sophomore running back Kavosiey Smoke, who suffered a rib injury against Ole Miss. Smoke rushed seven times for 62 yards at Auburn and had five carries for 29 yards against the Rebels.
Backup quarterback Joey Gatewood, who transferred from Auburn, played some in the fourth quarter last week.
"I think they're similar quarterbacks," Pruitt said. "We have to be ready for everything."
Vols senior outside linebacker Deandre Johnson's targeting penalty and subsequent ejection during the first quarter of Saturday's 44-21 loss to Georgia was earned, according to Pruitt.
"It was a bad decision on his part," Pruitt said. "He took two-and-a-half steps. The whole thing, really, about any defenseless player is that if you can avoid contact, it's your job to do that. I've always felt that there is inconsistency in the rule but that it's a good rule because it helps our game and protects our players.
"It is a tough rule to kind of enforce, and there have been some inconsistencies in my opinion over the years, but I think Deandre should have avoided the quarterback. It's pretty simple."
Johnson, who leads the Vols with 3.5 sacks this season, was ineligible for the second half of Saturday's game but is good to go this week.
Pruitt provided a brief synopsis Monday of Sunday night's scrimmage for players who have yet to compete through three weeks, such as freshman quarterback Harrison Bailey.
"I think we took 49 snaps, and Harrison took every one of them," Pruitt said. "For him, that was really good, because he didn't get a lot of live action in fall camp. We just didn't have enough plays for him to get in there and get going, so it was good for him, and it was good for a lot of players.
"There was a lot of energy and a lot of guys stuck out, so we've got to continue to do this and give these guys an opportunity to develop."
In a Zoom meeting this past summer, Pruitt said that Tennessee would wear black jerseys against Kentucky and that the jerseys would be auctioned off to financially aid Black Lives Matter causes. The Vols instead will wear their traditional orange jerseys Saturday.
"I learned a really good lesson as a head football coach," Pruitt said. "There are contracts with apparel that we wear. It's something that our players and our staff want to do, but it's something that we're not going to be able to do from a contract standpoint.
"We're going to find ways within our organization to raise money to support local institutions, but we're not going to be able to do it this game. Nike guaranteed us that, from now on, we'll be able to have black jerseys."
Odds and ends
Next week's home game against Alabama will be televised by CBS with a 3:30 p.m. kickoff. Pruitt was asked Saturday night why he didn't pull quarterback Jarrett Guarantano during the fourth quarter and was asked Monday why he didn't do it during the second half. "Jarrett is our quarterback," Pruitt said, "and he gives us the best opportunity to have success."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.