KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Kentucky believes it has made major progress since collapsing down the stretch each of the last two years.
The Wildcats could show how far they’ve come is by bouncing back from a heartbreaking loss to post a rare victory at Tennessee.
Kentucky (5-4, 4-3 SEC) seeks to become bowl eligible and earn its first victory in Knoxville since 1984 on Saturday when it visits Tennessee (6-3, 2-3) in a game matching two teams still holding out hope of winning the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division. Tennessee has won 30 of it is last 31 meetings with Kentucky.
“Getting six wins and to beat Tennessee (would be) a double bonus,” Kentucky cornerback J.D. Harmon said. “I feel like our guys understand that. I feel like everybody is using that as momentum to carry them on through the week.”
Kentucky wasted an opportunity to clinch bowl eligibility for the first time since 2010 last week when it lost 27-24 to Georgia on a field goal as time expired, snapping the Wildcats’ three-game winning streak. Kentucky coach Mark Stoops now wants to make sure the Wildcats avoid a third straight late-season fade.
Last season, Kentucky was 4-1 before losing six of its last seven games. Two years ago, Kentucky was 5-1 before ending the season with six straight losses.
This Kentucky squad looks stronger than those last two teams that stumbled down the stretch. A victory Saturday would give Kentucky five conference wins in a season for the first time since 1977.
Both Kentucky and Tennessee are chasing No. 22 Florida (6-2, 4-2) in the SEC East.
Tennessee’s most direct route to an SEC East title is to win its three remaining conference games while Florida loses one of its two remaining league matchups. Kentucky must beat Tennessee and hope that Florida loses Saturday against South Carolina and again Nov. 19 at No. 19 LSU.
“It’s exciting,” Tennessee linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. said. “This is what you want. You want to be in the conversation for championships. We just have to focus on what we can control, and that’s this week against Kentucky at 12 o’clock (noon).”
Some other things to watch when Tennessee hosts Kentucky.
KENTUCKY’S RUNNING GAME: The Wildcats have averaged 270.8 yards rushing per game in their last four contests. Benny Snell and Stanley “Boom” Williams have each run for over 600 yards this season. They’re facing a Tennessee defense that lacks depth in the interior of its line following season-ending injuries to Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle as well as the dismissal of Danny O’Brien.
TENNESSEE CAPTAINS RETURNING?: Two of Tennessee’s four team captains could be returning from injuries this week. Jones says that running back Alvin Kamara and cornerback Cam Sutton are both game-time decisions. Kamara has missed Tennessee’s last two games because of an unspecified injury. Sutton has played in only three games this year due to a fractured ankle.
TURNOVER TROUBLE: Both these teams have been unable to protect the football consistently. Kentucky has lost 13 fumbles and has thrown nine interceptions this season. Kansas, Bowling Green and Purdue are the only Football Bowl Subdivision teams with more turnovers. Kentucky is the only SEC team that has turned the ball over more than Tennessee, which has lost nine fumbles and thrown 11 interceptions.
CONTAINING DOBBS: Kentucky has struggled to slow down Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs throughout his career. Two years ago, Dobbs threw three touchdown passes and ran for a fourth score in a 50-16 rout of Kentucky. Last season, he threw two touchdown passes and ran for two more scores as Tennessee trounced the Wildcats 52-21 .
BEWARE OF BARNETT: The biggest challenge for Kentucky’s offense is to keep Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett out of the backfield. Barnett has delivered nine sacks this season to lead the SEC. Barnett has 29 career sacks, three shy of Reggie White’s school record. Barnett has recorded two sacks against Kentucky each of the last two years.