Last year the Vols were knocked on their cans and a proud program was staggered to its foundations. Off the field troubles piled insult upon injury and UT's offensive staff got an extreme makeover.
This year they came out with a Can Do attitude and kicked the competition's collective can. Arkansas was the only team to beat the Vols decisively, and that can be largely attributed to Tennessee's tough loss to LSU the week before.
Here's the top to bottom defensive ratings for the Tennessee-Kentucky game. Grades of 90-100 are regarded as championship quality. Grades of 80-89 equate to top 25 worthy, grades of 70-79 are winning marks. Grades of 60-69 are passing but problematical and won't be good enough to defeat a quality opponent. Any grade below 60 is considered failing. Special teams are included among defensive ratings but they aren't factored into the defense's total score. An opponent degree of difficulty (between 1 and 10) has been added to the formula.
DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY (7.5)
DEFENSIVE LINE (95) Although Tennessee didn't shut down Kentucky's ground game, it did control the impact of the run. Rafael Little did break a 43-yard gain, but his other 22 carries added up to 79 yards. More importantly, the Vols were able to apply pressure with their front four, which freed the linebackers to cover the short routes so essential to Kentucky's offensive success. Turk McBride, who may be UT's unsung hero this season for stepping into a huge breach at tackle left by Justin Harrell, had 8 tackles (6 solo) and a couple of hurries. Big Demonte Bolden had three tackles and a seven-yard sack. Xavier Mitchell (3 stops), Robert Ayers (two solo) and Wes Brown (2 tackles) kept Andre Woodson contained and maintained consistent pressure from the edge. Taken in its entirety this group has overachieved.
SECONDARY (92) Another solid effort from a unit that has had to be as good at tackling as it has covering this season. Jonathan Hefney — Is there a better football player on the team? — had 7 solo stops and one assist. Hefney has added heft this season and is as sure a tackler as there is on the team. In fact, given his ability to play the pass and run at safety or corner, it's surprising more people aren't concerned about him entering the NFL Draft. Demetrice Morley had six solo stops and a pass breakup as he continues to mature into a big-time talent. He was flagged for pass interference on a play on which he made a remarkable interception. It may not have been the smartest play but it was an exceptional athletic feat. Jonathan Wade (6 stops and 2 breakups) wore Inky Johnson's No. 29 and did the injured junior DB proud. Antwan Stewart (3 solos) wrapped up his last home appearance with a solid effort. His transition to corner from strong safety this year was a key to galvanizing UT's D. Antonio Gaines had 2 stops for the Vols.
LINEBACKERS (87) There were a few missed tackles and the linebackers were caught out of position a couple of times, but this wasn't a bad performance by a unit that was playing without top gun Jerod Mayo. Fifth year senior Marvin Mitchell (6 stops), who has played with a sprained shoulder for half the season, gave another gutsy effort in what has been an outstanding season. Interestingly, Mitchell was a secondary choice after the Vols missed out on another Virginia linebacker prospect — Ahmad Brooks. He didn't crack the top 40 prospects in state but proved to be a solid addition and consistent contributor. Rico McCoy stepped in for Mayo and topped the tackle chart with 6 solo stops and 3 assists. The redshirt freshman and former high school All-American figures to be a fixture on defense the next three seasons. Ryan Karl (7 tackles) once again proved to be a steady, heady defender with a knack for making the big play. Ellix Wilson had four solo stops in what was probably a career-best game.
OVERALL (90) This was a classic bend-but-don't-break performance against a very good Kentucky offense that enjoyed the advantage of having Randy Sanders, and his unique insights, on staff. Sure 410 yards total offense and 24 first downs are too much to surrender, but the 12-point total is a substantial accomplishment, as Kentucky came away 12 points in five trips into the red zone. Give credit to John Chavis for keeping the defense together in the face of injury and adversity this season. It wasn't a dominating defense but it may have been Chief's best coaching job while on The Hill.
SPECIAL TEAMS (80) Tennessee did a good job of stopping Kentucky's high octane return game, holding the Kats to 8 yards on one kick return and 1 yard on a punt return. James Wilhoit had three touchbacks on four kickoffs and Britton Colquitt averaged 44 yards on a pair of punts. Wilhoit had one field goal deflected and another that bounced off the upright before going through. UT's return game only netted 36 yards on three kickoffs and zero on punt returns. Yes it was a mixed bag but the Vols still held the edge over Kentucky which missed an extra point and a 33 yard field goal while settling for a field goals of 20 and 21 yards.