No. 3 Tennessee defeated No. 19 Kentucky 44-6 at Neyland Stadium on Saturday. Here are 10 things that stood out…
1.) D-E-F-E-N-S-E, Defense.
Hendon Hooker going off. Will Levis going off. Jalin Hyatt going off. Chris Rodriguez going off.
Those were all things that were easy to predict with reasonable confidence going into Saturday’s game. But Tennessee’s defense going off? I’m not sure anyone with a stable mind would’ve projected that.
That’s exactly what happened, though: Tennessee’s defense went off. The Vols intercepted Will Levis — who some continue to say will be the top quarterback taken in the 2023 NFL Draft — three times, and limited Kentucky to a measly 205 yards of total offense.
A red flag for Kentucky came on the Cats’ opening drive. They went three-and-out, gaining zero yards on the series. Something happened on the third down play that I made a mental note of at the time: Tennessee didn’t pressure Levis, he had time to throw, but he couldn’t find anyone open down field. That proved to be a foreshadowing, as Tennessee’s secondary — much maligned all season — played exceptionally well.
On UK’s second series, the Cats marched crispy down the field, mostly behind the legs of Rodriguez. At that point, it looked like Tennessee might be in trouble. The Vols were getting no pressure on Levis, and Kentucky was moving the ball on the ground. Those were two things that seemed to be keys to the game going into the matchup.
Kentucky didn’t score again, though, as Tennessee’s defense clamped down. In fact, the Cats hardly even threatened, with the exception of the drive that ended in the first of Levis’ three interceptions.
As for moving the ball on the ground, Kentucky averaged just 3.0 yards per carry — hardly great. As for not getting pressure on Levis, Tennessee finished with four sacks.
And here’s a statistic that is music for Vols fans’ ears: Kentucky was just 2 of 13 on third down.
It was easily the best showing of the season for Tennessee’s defense.
2.) Princeton Fant Continues to Emerge.
Is it even fair to call Princeton Fant a tight end at this point? The big guy ran for a touchdown and threw for a touchdown against UT Martin last week. And, on Saturday, he added another rushing touchdown to his resume, a two-yard plunge for the Vols’ second score of the night.
Fant carried the ball three times as a true freshman in 2018, but didn’t have another career carry until this season. He’s now carried the ball four times as a senior…and has four touchdowns. That’s a pretty good ratio, no? Meanwhile, he has 15 receptions (including one against Kentucky), needing just one more to equal his career-best for a season, which came a year ago.
Fant is proving to be a do-it-all athlete who Josh Heupel can turn to when he needs to draw up something a little different.
3.) Hendon Hooker Doing Hendon Hooker Things.
Is Hendon Hooker the Heisman front-runner? Or does that status belong to Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud? If it’s truly between the two of them — and Alabama quarterback Bryce Young shouldn’t be ruled out at this point — then it likely comes down to which team finishes the highest. That alone tilts things in Stroud’s favor, since Ohio State has an easier schedule in front of it.
But Hooker continues to show he’s worthy. He completed 19 of 25 passes for 245 yards and three touchdowns against Kentucky. Those aren’t eye-popping numbers. But they’re good numbers, and even better when you consider that two of his six incompletions were drops. The numbers are better still when you consider the strength of Kentucky’s defense — especially its pass defense.
4.) Heisman Hyatt?
Heisman Hooker, or Heisman Hendon, have become catch-phrases in Knoxville. But Heisman Hyatt is gaining steam, as the Vols’ standout wide receiver continues to impress.
Jalin Hyatt set Tennessee’s single-season receiving touchdown mark on Saturday, with still a month left to play in the regular season. That’s especially astounding when you consider the greats who have come through Tennessee over the years: guys like Alvin Harper, Carl Pickens, Joey Kent, Peerless Price, and the list goes on.
Hyatt always had potential to be one of the greats at the school that was once (and is about to be again) referred to as Wide Receiver U. But he has really blossomed since Cedric Tillman went down on the cheap shot against Akron. (Tillman finally returned to the lineup against Kentucky, but continues to be limited.)
Hyatt now has 45 catches for 907 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. Eleven of those touchdowns have come in the past four games, against LSU, Alabama, UT Martin and Kentucky. What a month of October it was for Hyatt. A scary good month, you might say. And Hyatt is slowly entrenching himself in the Heisman race. In fact, some analysts say that they have both Hooker and Hyatt in their top three.
One last thing: If you’re a defense, how in the world do you lose sight of Hyatt? Kentucky did it not once, not twice, but three times. Two of those busts resulted in touchdowns.
5.) Kentucky’s defense was solid.
If you’re a Kentucky fan, it’s hard to find anything positive to take away from Saturday’s debacle. But the Cats’ defense was solid. That’s easy for me to say; Tennessee gained 422 yards of offense and scored 44 points. However, consider just how good the Vols’ offense has been against teams like Florida, LSU and Alabama.
I said going in that most Tennessee fans weren’t appreciating the fact that Kentucky’s defense would be the best defense the Vols have faced this season. And it was. Besides Pitt, which was as much an off-night by Tennessee’s offense as anything else, Kentucky did a better job of taking away the big play and forcing the Vols to put together methodical drives than anyone else has. With the notable exceptions of the coverage busts that left Hyatt streaking wide open for touchdowns, Kentucky took away the deep ball, and a lot of the intermediate stuff, and forced Hooker to check down to secondary options. That’s what makes Hooker’s 19-of-25 passing effort more impressive. Kentucky also limited the run game, though a 35-yard run by Jaylen Wright made the numbers look better (Tennessee finished with 177 yards on the ground).
The question coming in was whether anyone can slow down Tennessee’s offense. I still don’t think anyone can stop it, but Kentucky proved that, yes, you can slow it down. That is an important note heading into next week’s showdown in Athens.
6.) SEC Officials Do What SEC Officials Do.
Kentucky fans are complaining that they were hosed by the officials. I’ll give them one gripe: the defensive pass interference that kept Tennessee’s second scoring drive alive was a bad call. In real-time it looked like the correct call, but the ball was clearly uncatchable. The hanky should’ve stayed in the pocket.
The game’s most notable screw-ups, however, benefited Kentucky.
Every year there is at least one game that leaves me scratching my head and wondering just exactly what the point of replay is. Last night was that game for 2022.
First, the officials stopped play to review Wright’s 35-yard run. It was a ridiculous stoppage of play; Wright wasn’t even close to being down. It’s mind-boggling that the guys upstairs relayed that one down to the field, but for Kentucky it was just as good as one of Lane Kiffin’s fake injuries: it forced Tennessee’s offense to hit the pause button.
Later, Will Levis was given a favorable spot on a fourth down conversion try inside the red zone. Incredibly, it appeared that it wasn’t even going to be reviewed. Tennessee’s coaching staff nearly blew up, and play eventually was stopped. But it was pretty clear that the white hat didn’t want to take a look at it. And he quickly confirmed the call on the field. So quickly that it was obvious he didn’t take time to look at all of the available angles. That was bizarre because a couple of those angles clearly showed that Levis’ knee was down with the ball short of the line to gain.
It was a bad call in real time. It was an even worse review.
Fortunately, the play didn’t matter because Juwan Mitchell got the interception two plays later. As they say, “ball don’t lie.”
7.) Special Teams Iffy At Times.
If Tennessee showed a weakness Saturday night, it was on special teams. Yes, the Vols blocked an extra point. That was certainly a bright spot. So was the punting of Paxton Brooks. The senior nailed a 51-yard punt, and his other two punts were both downed inside the five-yard-line. Finally, Dee Williams had a 34-yard punt return to set up a touchdown late.
But there were also some questionable moments. Chase McGrath missed an extra point — his second miss of the season. Granted, it was a long extra point; a holding penalty backed the ball up. But that’s another issue. Why do you have to hold on a PAT? The answer is that Kentucky was getting too much pressure off the edge, which was a theme all night on place kicks.
McGrath also missed a field goal attempt, and kickoffs continue to be sketchy at times, though kick coverage remains pretty good.
8.) Josh Heupel > Mark Stoops
This probably isn’t even worthy of discussion. Most of you are probably saying “Well, duh!”
But it was so painfully apparent during Saturday night’s game that it’s little wonder Kentucky fans were feeling a little extra miserable as they exited Neyland Stadium.
Stoops has been around forever at Kentucky … at least by SEC standards. He’s been the coach in Lexington since 2013. The only current head coach who has been in place longer in this conference is, of course, Alabama’s Nick Saban, who has been on the job in Tuscaloosa since 2007. And Stoops deserves credit for turning things around at UK. The Wildcats have had some pretty good teams in his tenure, including this one.
But on Saturday night in Knoxville, Stoops was no match for Heupel. The second-year head coach has rebuilt Tennessee with dizzying speed and success. In just his second year at a program that was absolutely train-wrecked when he took over, Heupel has a team that would be in the College Football Playoff if the season ended today and could very well be the No. 1 team in the CFP standings when they’re released for the first time on Tuesday.
Heupel completely out-coached Stoops in every phase of the game Saturday night. Kentucky fans were outraged at the play calling on the offensive side of the ball, and had reason to be. Stoops and his staff played right into the hands of Tennessee. In retrospect, this game was over almost as soon as it began, because Stoops didn’t have a game plan in place to win it.
Stoops probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. If he can win eight games a year and consistently get to a bowl game, it’ll probably be enough to keep him in place in Lexington. But, at the same time, he’s probably reached his ceiling. And although Kentucky surpassed Tennessee in the SEC East race for a short time, things are headed back to their rightful order.
9.) Most Popular Man on Campus.
There were a few notable moments during stoppages of play that brought roars from the crowd at Neyland Stadium Saturday night. One was the fighter jet flyover in full afterburner mode at the conclusion of the national anthem. One was when Tennessee’s basketball team saluted Kentucky fans after being recognized for winning the SEC championship. And one was when Tony Vitello and his baseball team showed up.
In fact, it’s likely that Vitello got the biggest roar of approval from the crowd all night. Women love him, men want to be him. And he hasn’t even won a national championship…yet. Heupel can probably surpass Vitello if he wins an SEC championship, but — and I mean no offense to Josh Heupel — he’s not going to have the women swooning the way Tony V. Does.
10.) This Tennessee Team is Good.
Tennessee boat-raced LSU earlier this season, going on the road to win 40-13 in Baton Rouge against a Tiger team that was ranked No. 25 at the time.
Most people said, “Dang; I didn’t realize LSU was that bad.” Until the Tigers out-scored previously-unbeaten Ole Miss 42-3 last week to surge back from an early deficit and defeat Lane Kiffin’s squad 45-20. Suddenly, Tennessee’s dominating win over LSU took on a new luster.
Last night’s game against Kentucky felt very similar. It’s easy for Tennessee fans to laugh and say, “Same ol’ Kentucky.” It’s true that some of the worst teams the Vols have ever fielded have been successful against some of the best teams the Cats have ever fielded.
But this is a good Kentucky team. Will Levis is still considered by some analysts to be the odds-on favorite for the top quarterback taken in the 2023 NFL Draft. That includes Mel Kiper, who said just last week that Levis will be the top overall pick in the draft.
We can discuss amongst ourselves whether Levis is overrated (frankly, I would agree with you if you say he is) but the fact is that Kentucky was deserving of its No. 19 ranking. And Tennessee just flat-out destroyed the Cats.
The Kentucky and LSU games both had something in common: Tennessee’s defense showed up. It remains a mystery why the Vols struggled defensively the way they did against Alabama and Florida. It’s easy to chalk up the Bama game as being due to Bryce Young’s performance. Young was exceptionally good that night in Knoxville. But Anthony Richardson? The Florida quarterback is struggling mightily this year…and looked like a Heisman hopeful against Tennessee.
Nevertheless, Tennessee’s defense has been good to outstanding in three games against Top 25 opponents (with Pittsburgh being the third). All season, doubters have been counting Tennessee out. First they said the Vols hadn’t played anyone. Then they said Alabama was banged up. Then they said Kentucky was a trap game for the Vols. And all Tennessee has done is take care of its business.
Can Tennessee beat Georgia? I’m not sure. If the gam were in Knoxville, I’d say “yes.” Between the Hedges? That’s a tough order. UGA has way, way more talent than Tennessee has. And it’s not even close. But this game isn’t all about talent. And I’ll just say this: Georgia may very well be a better team than Tennessee, but the gap is really, really small. Next Saturday is going to be a fantastic game in Athens.