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Goals For Kentucky Week

The Vols look to rebound after a disappointing loss to Georgia. These are the goals Tennessee needs to address in Kentucky week.

Following a 44-21 loss in Athens to Georgia, the Vols (2-1) will look to get back into the win column on Saturday against the visiting Kentucky Wildcats (1-2). Tennessee left Sanford Stadium with a punch in the stomach and some serious questions about who they are as a team. This week of practice will be critical for the Vols, as they have to answer some identity questions while preparing for a Wildcat squad that is difficult to get a read on. Kentucky has losses to Auburn and Ole Miss, and won on Saturday at home against Mississippi State. That means that the Wildcats have play d three of the most confusing teams in the SEC thus far in this weird, young season, making it difficult to get a bead on just how good the Wildcats are. Two things are for certain however, Kentucky has one of the best offensive lines in the SEC, and the Wildcats have a typical Mark Stoops defense, tough and opportunistic. The Vols needed a goal line stand to leave Lexington with a win last season, and they will need to be ready to go if they want to continue their home dominance over Kentucky.

The biggest question that Tennessee has to answer is who are they up front on offense? Are they the unit that controlled a good South Carolina front and dominated a solid Missouri unit, or are they the group that got whipped by Georgia in Athens. No unit was a bigger disappointment or surprise in Tennessee's loss at Georgia than their heralded offensive line, which fell flat against the Bulldogs with a resounding thud. Georgia looks like they may have the best defense in the nation, and it may not be close. Still, Tennessee expected and should expect better from their group up front. Will Friend and Jim Chaney have to find answers on the offensive line this week and fast. The game against Georgia felt like an anomaly, especially given how well this group has aged in the past, and for Tennessee's sake, it better be. The Wildcats aren't the Bulldogs on defense, but they aren't a unit to sleep on. Kentucky has talent, size, and athleticism up front, and they are a well coached unit under Stoops. Trey Smith and Brandon Kennedy need to take ownership of the locker room this week, move past a poor performance, and show the ability to dominate they showed in the first two weeks of the season.

The Tennessee offensive line was expected to be one of the best in the country, and certainly among the best in the SEC. Even with a poor outing against Georgia, that group should rebound and show that weeks one and two are the rule, while week three was an exception. The challenge for the Tennessee defense is that they are in their second of three straight weeks facing the other top lines in the SEC. The stretch of Georgia, Kentucky, and Alabama means that the Tennessee defense will see their three best offensive lines of the season three weeks in a row. The good news for Tennessee is that despite the way the final score looked, Tennessee held their own against Georgia up front until they just ran out of gas after being on the field the entire second half. More good news comes in the fact that the skill players surrounding the Kentucky line aren't on the same level as what Georgia has. The bad news is that Tennessee has been gashed this season by quarterback runs, and Terry Wilson is the best runner they have faced. Wilson also doesn't seem as dangerous passing as Conner Bazelak or Stetson Bennett, so the point to watch will be whether Wilson is a dual threat or if the Cats are one-dimensional on offense.

Another identity crisis question for Tennessee revolves around turnovers. The Vols played their first two games without turning the ball over at all. As a result, they started the season 2-0. Against Georgia, the Vols imploded in the second half, turning the ball over three times, and were a few bounces from potentially being as many as five. Tennessee wants to push teams around up front, run the ball, control the clock, and play good defense. That recipe will win a lot of football games, but it only works if the Vols take care of the football. Kentucky is coming off a six interception performance in their win against Mississippi State. Now, the Cats face the unpleasant task of gearing up for an offense dramatically different than what they saw Saturday, but they proved themselves to be an opportunistic unit. The Vols are unlikely to give Kentucky a shot at six interceptions in a game, but if the Vols make a mistake, the Cats are capable of capitalizing. The focus for Tennessee settles on quarterback Jarrett Guarantano in this area. Through his career, Guarantano has done a good job of limiting turnovers. The problem has been that when he commits one, he tends to commit several. Guarantano has to rebound after a brutal second half against Georgia, get his mental outlook right, and show up dialed in against Kentucky. The Vols want to lean on their ground game, but the Kentucky defense is too good to be one dimensional against. The Vols will need Guarantano to take care of the ball while getting it to his play makers outside, namely Josh Palmer. 

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This is an extremely important week of practice for Tennessee, perhaps the most important of the season thus far. The Vols made a ton of mistakes against Georgia, and still know they let a chance to win a big game slip through their fingers. That kind of loss can be jarring to a program, and how Tennessee responds is critical for the rest of the season. The Vols can either answer the gut check they took against Georgia while preparing for a tough but beatable Kentucky team, or they can let the loss linger. This week the mental aspect of practice, film study, and the weight room may be more important than the physical repetitions. Tennessee needs to answer the bell and come ready to play well at home against the Wildcats if they want to take a step forward and steer this season toward success.