KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Kentucky and Tennessee have taken different directions to reach similar points.
Tennessee has had a week off since rallying for a 45-42 overtime victory at South Carolina, a comeback that gave the Volunteers plenty of optimism heading into the stretch run. Kentucky has lost four straight games by an average margin of 23.5 points.
Yet the two teams head into Saturday’s matchup at Neyland Stadium with comparable records and identical goals. Kentucky (5-5, 2-5 SEC) and Tennessee (4-5, 1-4) are both seeking their first bowl bids since 2010.
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”They’re fighting for the same thing that we’re fighting for,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.
Tennessee has won 28 of its past 29 meetings with Kentucky and enters Saturday’s game as a 7 1/2-point favorite. The Vols have looked like a different team since Joshua Dobbs took over at quarterback.
Dobbs helped Tennessee erase much of a 24-0 deficit in a 34-20 loss to Alabama. He followed that up against South Carolina by becoming the first Tennessee player to throw for 300 yards and rush for 100 yards in the same game.
The recent surge has the Vols feeling bullish about their chances of reaching a bowl game.
”It’s going to be a great feeling when we get there,” Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson said.
While Tennessee must win two of its remaining three games to have a shot at a bowl bid, Kentucky can become bowl eligible merely by winning Saturday. The problem is that the Wildcats have been stuck on five wins for a month now.
In its past four games, Kentucky has lost 41-3 at LSU, 45-31 against Mississippi State, 20-10 at Missouri and 63-31 against Georgia.
”It’s very hard to swallow,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. ”I don’t care who you’re playing. Nobody likes defeat. I know our fans don’t. So it’s difficult, but it doesn’t get you down.”
The Wildcats say they haven’t lost faith in themselves.
”We have a strong senior group and the guys behind us know that we are going to come back and keep fighting,” Kentucky defensive tackle Mike Douglas said after the Georgia game. ”There’s no give-up and if you give up, you might as well stay in Lexington when we travel on the road.”
While Kentucky is trying to remain upbeat, Tennessee must guard against a false sense of security. Jones made that point clear Monday by noting how Dobbs needed to improve his consistency in practice, even after the sophomore quarterback’s performance against South Carolina.
This marks the fourth straight year Tennessee has been 4-5 with a shot at earning a bowl bid by winning two of its remaining three games. Each of the past three years, the Vols have finished one win short.
”Last year, I believe we got satisfied at times,” Jones said. ”There was nothing to be satisfied for. … Now (that) we put ourselves in position for a postseason opportunity, go take advantage of it.”
NOTES: Jones said sophomore wide receiver Josh Smith would miss the rest of the season and take a medical redshirt due to a high ankle sprain. Smith, who has 10 catches for 135 yards and a touchdown, hasn’t played since getting hurt Sept. 13 at Oklahoma. … Coleman Thomas, who has made five starts at right tackle, should return Saturday after missing two games with an ankle injury. But Jones said senior Jacob Gilliam would remain the starter at right tackle for a third straight game. … Rap star Lil Jon visited Tennessee’s practice Sunday. Tennessee has played a remixed version of the Lil Jon song ”Turn Down For What” when opposing offenses are in third-down situations at home games. ”He said our coach is a cool cat,” Johnson said.