Will Vols Whip Wildcats?

WHAT: Tennessee (7-4, 4-3) vs. Kentucky (7-4, 3-4) <br> WHEN: Nov. 30, 2002, 12:30 p.m. EST<br> WHERE: Neyland Stadium (capacity 104,076)<br> ODDS: Vols 8-point favorite<br> SERIES: UT leads 63-25-9<br> LAST MEETING: Vols won 35-31<br> STREAK: Vols have won 17 straight<br> LAST UK WIN: 1984 (17-12 in Knoxville)<br> TV BROADCAST: Jefferson-Pilot<br>

OVERVIEW: Kentucky comes into this 98th annual meeting between these longtime rivals with a revived albeit probation-plagued program. Despite a 7-4 record, the Wildcats aren't eligible for a bowl which means the Tennessee game will once against represent their post season. Kentucky has also had two weeks to prepare for the game which should be a distinct advantage this late in the season when legs do get weary. In addition to normal wear and tear that accompanies any 12-game regular season, the Vols are also beset with injuries that have cost them 18 starters (between one and 11 games) so far this season. The status of starting cornerbacks Willie Miles and Jabari Greer remain uncertain while starting free safety Rashad Baker will miss his second straight game with a knee injury. Also gone is freshman linebacker Marvin Mitchell who along with the absence of Robert Peace leaves UT's linebacker crops with only one middle linebacker, Keyon Whiteside. Mitchell is one of five Vol linebackers lost for the year either due to injury or academic ineligibility. To give Whiteside a break, or to replace him in case of injury, the Vols are likely to move Eddie Moore, who is also slowed with injuries, to the middle and bring safety Steven Marsh to the Sam linebacker position. Even at 100 percent, Tennessee's defense would be tested by a Kentucky attack that has more balance than usual and is still dangerous through the air with the Jared Lorenzen aka the 'Pillsbury Throw Boy' launching spirals. Artose Pinner leads in the conference in rushing with 1,363 yards in 272 carries for 13 touchdowns and a 5.0 yard per carry average. Lorenzen has thrown 24 touchdowns and hasn't had a pass intercepted in his last 148 attempts. He is completing 57.2 percent of his passes (174-of-304) for 2,208 yards and only five interceptions. Adding to Tennessee's troubles is wide receiver/return specialist Derek Abney who has returned four punts and one kickoff for touchdowns this season. He has also caught a team-high 38 passes for 556 yards and four TDs.

EVEN STEVEN: A quick look at key statistics for each team this season reveals just how evenly matched Tennessee and Kentucky are. Both teams have a 7-4 record. Tennessee is averaging 18.5 first downs a game while Kentucky is averaging 18.4 first downs. Tennessee is averaging 361.4 total yards per game compared to Kentucky's 363.4. UT is rushing for 159.7 yards per game and passing for 201.6. Kentucky is rushing for 153.9 yards per game and passing for 209.5. Each team is averaging 23.7 yards per kickoff return. Tennessee has a plus 0.18 turnover ratio per contest Kentucky has a plus 0.73. Tennessee is averaging 42.2 yards per punt, Kentucky is averaging 44.0 yards per punt. The Vols time of possession is 31:52 per game compared to Cats' 29:12. UT is converting third downs at a 38.1 clip, UK is converting at a 39.4 average. Alex Walls has hit 10-of-13 field goals this season compared to Taylor Begley 9-of-13. Pinner has 1,363 yards with 13 touchdowns and a 5.0 yard per carry average. Tennessee's one-two punch of Cedric Houston and Jabari Davis have combined to gain 1,222 yards scoring 15 touchdowns and averaging 5.1 yards per carry.

GLARING DIFFERENCES: There are significant differences between the strengths of each squad and that is where the battle lines will be drawn for Saturday's showdown. Kentucky is averaging 35.0 points per game while Tennessee is averaging 24.5. Conversely, Tennessee is allowing only 17.9 points per game while Kentucky is surrendering 25.2 points per game. Moreover, Kentucky is giving up 407.7 yards per game compared to Tennessee's 296.1. A low-scoring game should favor the Vols while Kentucky would like to take its chances in a shootout like last season's 35-31 classic. Kentucky is particularly vulnerable in the secondary, giving up 231.6 yards per game. The question is: Do the Vols have the weapons to exploit that weakness with Clausen significantly less than 100 percent and no primary threat at wide receiver yet to emerge?

INTANGIBLES: Kentucky has lost 17 straight to their archrival and would rather win Saturday's contest than any on its schedule. The Wildcats started the season 4-0, but have only gone 3-4 over their last seven contests. The off week should help the Cats come out fresh and frisky. Early success will help light Kentucky's competitive fire and any big breaks on special teams should favor the Wildcats who have a league-leading seven blocked kicks this season including: three punts, two field goals and two extra points. Abney adds another threat that will severely test UT's special teams. Add it up and Tennessee can't afford any letdowns in any phase of the game. How will the Vols hold up under that pressure? Tennessee will want to send 20 seniors out in style and the emotion of playing their final game at Neyland Stadium should provide a lift. If the crowd gets in the game early and stays late, Tennessee should have a slight edge in the intangible category. The Vols should also have ample incentive to make amends for three one-sided home defeats suffered at home this season.

KEYS: With injuries reducing Tennessee's available defensive backs, the Vols will need to get pressure on Lorenzen or run the risk of leaving an inexperienced secondary exposed to big plays. On offense, Tennessee will need to establish the run to set up the pass, but if Kentucky sells out to the run the Vols have to make them pay through the air. If UT can loosen the defense and take advantage of its superior line play, it should be able to control the ball, the clock and field possession. Tennessee has to also take care of the football. Turnovers allowed both Florida and Alabama to jump out to big early leads and post decisive victories.

SUMMARY: Tennessee has put together three conference wins in a row, but all of those victories have been on the road against teams with one-dimensional offenses. Kentucky will pose a greater challenge given the presence of Lorenzen, Pinner and Abney. Kentucky has recorded big wins at Louisville, at Arkansas and at Starkville, so they should be up to the challenge of playing in Knoxville. The Vols appear to have gained their focus, some identity on offense and a measure of confidence by surviving a season filled with adversity. The feeling here is that there is enough left in the tank to post win No. 8, but it won' be easy.

PREDICTION: Tennessee 27, Kentucky 24.

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