KNOXVILLE — A football coach saying football things Monday afternoon, Tennessee's Butch Jones hit all the right notes about this Saturday's sacrificial lamb for — and this was a snappy marketing move — "Noon at Neyland."
Of SEC East brother Kentucky, which has lost 30 of its last 31 games to the Volunteers, Jones said, "We are playing a very talented and physical football team. I have a lot of respect for what (UK coach) Mark (Stoops) has built there and what he continues to build there."
What Stoops was building two and a half games into this 2016 season was a coaching coffin for himself. The Wildcats had blown a 35-10 lead in a 44-35 home loss to Southern Miss in their opener, been shredded at Florida 45-7 and were in a 28-21 hole at home against New Mexico State.
At that point, there's little doubt that Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart was starting to wonder whether he could afford not to raise the more than $17 million needed to buy out Stoops before the Big Blue fan base bought out Barnhart for considerably less.facebook
Yet that was also the game when UK lost quarterback Drew Barker for the season with a back injury and was forced to replace him with junior college transfer Stephen Johnson. The Wildcats rallied for a 62-42 win against NMSU, knocked off South Carolina the following week and had won three SEC games in a row before Saturday's home loss to Georgia.
But are they possibly talented and physical enough to win at Neyland for the first time since 1984?
"It is a sense of physicality that they play with," Jones added. "Defensively, they have big corners out on the perimeter that can man you up. They have a very strong defensive line that can hold its gaps, but they are blitz oriented. They are going to play what we call a bear front. They are going to cover one and force us to beat them."
If Jones is attempting to make the Cats sound like the 1985 Chicago Bears, he's a bit off. Kentucky does seem more talented and physical than in most years, though that's a little like saying Miley Cyrus isn't half as trashy as she used to be.
For all the good vibes justifiably surrounding Big Blue at the moment thanks to its four SEC wins, only one of its five total victories (South Carolina) has come against a team with a winning record. New Mexico State (2-6), Vanderbilt (4-5), Missouri (2-7) and Mississippi State (4-5) may all stay home for bowl season.
Even Stoops' best stat as a UK coach comes with something of an asterisk. According to the school's game notes, the Cats are 14-1 under their fourth-year coach when leading after three quarters. The lone loss? Saturday, when Kentucky took a 21-16 lead into the final period and lost 27-24.
That said, UK can run the ball, which hasn't always been a Tennessee defensive strength this season. In Stanley "Boom" Williams (99.8 yards per game and 7.3 yards per carry) and Benny Snell Jr. (86 ypg/5.5 ypc) the Cats might have the best one-two rushing punch in the SEC East.
Especially when the Wildcats use those backs in their "wildcat" attack, which moves Snell or Williams to quarterback, where they directly take the snap, then decide which direction they wish to run.
(Note: The "wildcat" formation has been around since the 1920s but got its name in the 1990s not because of UK, but because Kansas State coach Bill Snyder used it to help turn his Wildcats into a national power.)
UT defensive coordinator Bob Shoop tried to sound concerned about it Monday.
"(Numbers) 18 (Williams), 26 (Snell) and 3 (Jojo Kemp) are all really good running backs," Stoop said. "They only run a handful of plays, but they execute very well."
And then it hits you. The lone UK win in 31 years against UT came not with a passing whiz of a quarterback on the order of past Wildcat greats such as Tim Couch, Jared Lorenzen or Andre Woodson, but rather a converted wideout in Matt Roark.
In what was assuredly the low mark of the Derek Dooley Error in Volsville, a desperate Kentucky moved Roark to QB for the 2011 game in Lexington, demanding that he tell no one. Somehow, despite Roark completing only 4 of 6 passes for a total of 15 yards and the Cats gaining onlly 217 yards total, they halted a 26-game UT winning streak against them, prevailing 10-3.
Said former Tennessee quarterback and offensive coordinator Randy Sanders, who was UK's OC that season: "(Roark) had 51 plays on his wristband. We probably used 30. On a typical game we might have 150, 160 options available."
This is in no way to say these Vols are remotely as vulnerable as those Vols, who wound up 5-7 with that defeat. As Shoop pointed out Monday, of the 380 rushing plays run against the 2016 Vols to date, 358 have allowed just 2.8 yards per carry.
The other 22, however, have gone for back-breaking gains, particularly in the Alabama and Texas A&M games.
"We haven't played poor run defense except against Texas A&M and Alabama," Shoop said.
Kentucky isn't quite Bama or A&M in league statistics, but the Cats are fifth in rushing at 215 yards per game, and the SEC East leaders in that category.
So should the Big Orange Nation be worried come Noon at Neyland? Probably not. But on the slightest of chances that Big Blue knocks off Big Orange for the second time in 32 years, all that Jones has built at UT and continues to build could crash to the ground before sundown.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.