Tennessee looks for happy ending against Kentucky
Tennessee suffered four straight losses in October. A win over Kentucky would mean four straight wins and a bowl bid for the Volunteers.
It would also bring a happy ending for the Tennessee seniors, who have been a part of the most tumultuous stretch in Vols football history.
''You know, a lot of people would say this didn't turn out the way they'd planned, and I'd agree with them,'' senior wide receiver Gerald Jones said. ''(A win is) big for these seniors because you kind of want to go out on top.
''Every year the seniors want to go out on top with an undefeated record and possibly playing for the national championship,'' Jones added. ''It didn't happen for this team, but the positive thing that did happen is we rallied back and flipped the season all the way around. We've still got one more game to go.''
For the Wildcats, who already have secured the six wins needed to reach a bowl, a win on Saturday would end an embarrassing streak of losses to the Vols. Tennessee has beat Kentucky 25 straight times in the annual meeting, the longest such active streak in the FBS.
The Wildcats last won in 1984, a 17-12 decision in Knoxville that happened before any player on either team's current squad was born.
''Our program has progressed, and it's time that our program has progressed enough that we're not associated with losing as far as a 25- or 26-year streak,'' defensive back Randall Burden said. ''I think it'll be a great game and Kentucky will be on the winning end.''
The Vols seniors have played for three different head coaches and four offensive coordinators, and were part of Tennessee's only squad to lose at least seven games. One thing has remained constant, though - ending the regular season with a win over Kentucky.
Those victories haven't come easy, though, with two of the last three meetings decided in overtime and four of the last six by a touchdown or less. That's what Jones will be thinking about when he's on the field, not the streak.
''When you're in the game it's a dogfight, and usually every year with Kentucky it is, and that's what we're preparing for is a dogfight,'' he said. ''You cherish those moments. You cherish those games, because those are the games you remember.''
With an all-purpose player like Randall Cobb, Mike Hartline at quarterback and talented tailback Derrick Locke, Kentucky has as good a shot as ever. The Wildcats (6-5, 2-5) rank second in the SEC in pass offense (274.4 yards per game), third in total offense (441.5 yards) and fourth in scoring (35.3 points per game).
They'll be playing in their fifth-straight bowl game this season, beat eventual SEC East champion South Carolina and nearly upset SEC West champion Auburn.
''When you look at Kentucky, I think it's as explosive a football team as we've seen and as they've had in a while, and they've had some great offensive teams,'' Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. ''They have the formula. They have a veteran quarterback, they have two receivers that can pierce you, one of them being an all-purpose guy that's a phenomenal player, and they have a good, solid, excellent running back.
''And when you have all those parts in place, you're going to be good, and they are good.''
The Vols (5-6, 2-5) have been playing significantly better during their three-game win streak with freshman quarterback Tyler Bray at the helm. They're averaging 436.6 yards and 42 points in wins over Memphis, Mississippi and Vanderbilt.
''It's a big game for both parties involved,'' Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said. ''We've got a chance to be 7-5. They've got a chance to be bowl eligible. So it's a big game, and every week we come here and I say that, because what league are we in? SEC. It's a big game every week.''
Cobb swears that getting a win over Tennessee wouldn't mean more than a win in any other game. The junior won four straight state titles while playing a dozen miles away from Knoxville in Alcoa, Tenn., but coach Phillip Fulmer's staff didn't show much interest in him until after he'd signed with Kentucky.
''It's just another game for me,'' Cobb said. ''My last chance at Neyland. That's it. I've got nothing to say this week. I'm going to talk with my pads.''