KNOXVILLE (AP) — Kentucky coach Mark Stoops sees a number of similarities between his team and Tennessee.
The comparisons are inevitable because both teams recruited well after disappointing 2013 seasons and rely heavily on underclassmen, although Kentucky has a larger senior class.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones and Stoops show similar results in their rebuilding projects. Their matchup Saturday at Neyland Stadium could offer a hint at which team is closer to contending in the Southeastern Conference.
“(We’re a) very energetic, fun-to-watch team, a team flying around, and then we’ve been inconsistent,” Stoops said. “I think if you ask them, they would probably say the same thing.”
The similarities also are apparent to the Volunteers (4-5, 1-4 SEC).
Kentucky (5-5, 2-5) is trying to end a four-game skid while earning a sixth win that would make the Wildcats bowl eligible for the first time since 2010. Tennessee also is seeking its first bowl bid since 2010.
Both teams have a freshman leading them in rushing — Jalen Hurd for Tennessee and Stanley “Boom” Williams for Kentucky.
Each team relies on a mobile sophomore quarterback. Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs threw for 301 yards and rushed for 166 yards two weeks ago in a 45-42 overtime victory at South Carolina. Kentucky’s Patrick Towles has thrown for 2,374 yards and has a team-high 118 carries.
“We have similar styles of play,” Hurd said. “I respect Kentucky. That’s why we’re going to have to bring our ‘A’ game.”
Tennessee has won 28 of the last 29 games in this series, with the lone Kentucky win coming in 2011. The Vols aren’t paying much attention to recent history. Tennessee coach Butch Jones notes Kentucky has improved its speed this season, something his players have noticed.
“It’s night and day,” Tennessee defensive end Corey Vereen said. “From their wide receivers to their running backs to their line, they’re a much better football team from last year to this year.”
Here are some things to watch Saturday when Kentucky plays at Tennessee.
VOLS THIRD-DOWN DEFENSE: Tennessee was among the national leaders in third-down conversion defense for much of the season, but the Vols have lately struggled in those situations. Alabama went 11 of 15 on third down and South Carolina converted 6 of 13 third-down situations in Tennessee’s last two games.
KENTUCKY ON FOURTH DOWN: Kentucky has 21 fourth-down conversion attempts, the most of any SEC school. Kentucky is 8 of 21 in fourth-down situations. Tennessee opponents are 6 of 13 in fourth-down situations this year.
ANOTHER RECORD NIGHT?: In each of its last two games, Tennessee has allowed an individual opponent to set a school single-game record for yards receiving. Alabama’s Amari Cooper had 224 yards receiving in a 34-20 victory over the Vols. South Carolina’s Pharoh Cooper had 233 yards receiving against Tennessee.
BALL-HAWKING WILDCATS: Kentucky is tied for third in the SEC with 19 takeaways and has scored four defensive touchdowns. Kentucky has intercepted 13 passes, tied for 11th among all FBS teams. Tennessee has committed 17 turnovers, tied for the third-highest total in the SEC. “We always stress ball security, we have since day one, it’s always been at the top of our priority list and will continue to be,” Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said. “But we’ve definitely placed an extra emphasis on it this week.”
SURGING BARNETT: Kentucky must keep Tennessee freshman defensive end Derek Barnett from getting into the backfield. Barnett has a team-high seven sacks and is ranked second in the SEC with 14 tackles for loss. Six of his sacks have come in Tennessee’s last three games. He had three sacks at Ole Miss and three more at South Carolina.