Kentucky is suddenly a pivotal game

Marvin Westwestwords

How strange to see mediocre Kentucky emerge as a pivotal game in Tennessee’s season.

The Vols almost always beat the Wildcats, you say. Why the concern?

I want to believe Tennessee is the better team but …

They both have 5-2 records, each inflated with three romps over inferior foes. Kentucky’s significant victory was over Florida. Tennessee lost to the Gators but hurdled South Carolina and Texas A&M without looking all that great.

Here’s the trap: This game is in Lexington, 7 p.m. kickoff, ESPN. The Vols have not been a good road team.

Here’s the second trap: The Wildcats are coming off easy-does-it Open Date. The Vols have been treating cuts, bruises and hurt feelings from their collapse at Alabama.

That, combined with state of mind, adds up to more risk than reward. A win over Kentucky will be, unfairly, so-what. A loss will bring hell to pay. Remember where you heard that.

Football at this level (below playoff consideration) is most often who wants it most. Let us hope whatever Josh Heupel tells his team is more motivational than what he said at halftime last Saturday.

There was a time we thought this Tennessee team might defy the odds and be outstanding.

Back in May, Joe Milton and Ramel Keyton were on parade, promoting the Volunteers in downtown New York. They rang the closing bell for Nasdaq. Their names and images were on the Times Square big billboard. They stopped at Yankee Stadium for a game. Allan Houston took them for a tour of Madison Square Garden.

Milton, a man of fashion, was one sharp dude on the NFL Network, “Good Morning Football.”

As I recall, he respectfully told the world good times were possible without Hendon Hooker. Of course, there was talk about how far Joe can throw a football.

Alas, we now know there is a gap between long-distance throwing and catching. As for good times, they are still possible, I suppose, or maybe not. This is to be determined.

Wouldn’t it be something if this is the Saturday Tennessee finally puts it all together – better coaching, better blocking, better tackling, better all-around play in the secondary, even without Kamal Hadden.

I liked what Dylan Sampson said.

“Words can only do so much. We need better plays rather than better leadership.”

I liked what Aaron Beasley said about next game, next play. This is the foundation of Heupel’s philosophy, snap and clear, forget about what happened and focus on what is ahead.

Key element is Kentucky’s running attack, one of the best in the country (against Ball State, Eastern Kentucky, Akron and Vanderbilt).

Ray Davis, transfer from Vandy, is the real deal. He is first in the Southeastern Conference in rushing yards per game (111.57) and yards per carry (7.04).

The big offensive line presents a genuine challenge.

“They’re extremely physical,” said Heupel. “They do a really good job of getting a hat on a hat. We’ve got to be violent. We’ve got to be disruptive.”

There is another problem, an overgrown sophomore defensive tackle, Deone Walker, 6-6 and 348. He is a proverbial man mountain. There is no way to run over him and it is a long way around him.

That is not encouraging as the Vols seek to improve red zone productivity. They rank 96th in the country at 55 percent. They led last season at 79 percent.

The mountain obstacle is not encouraging as Tennessee still searches for a solution to short yardage on fourth downs. The Vols are 1-for-10 since the Virginia game and the successful one was not really short. It was fourth and three on a very late play against South Carolina. I thought the Gamecocks had lost interest.

Tennessee is ranked 129th out of 133 Division 1 teams in fourth-down conversion rate. You are correct, there must be something wrong. Scheme or execution?

On the flip side of that dilemma, there is nothing wrong with punter Jackson Ross. He averaged a school record 53.2 on five punts against Alabama. He is averaging 43.79 on 29 punts. That puts him in Colquitt conversations.

Want to know more about the only Australian Volunteer? He says Outback Steakhouse, an Australian-themed chain restaurant, has absolutely nothing to do with Australia.

Big game at Kentucky has a lot to do with Tennessee’s season.

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is

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