In a way, Saturday's 24-14 loss to the Volunteers was no different from a lot of the other defeats, at least recently. Kentucky had control of the game at one point, put itself in position to win and then let the game slip right through its fingers.
"It's probably one of the biggest letdowns we've had this year," Hartline said. "On both sides of the ball we felt like we had a great game plan against them. There were a lot of things we did exploit against them. I can tell you that I don't think we're the worst team here. I just think we didn't execute. They played better."
Losing to teams the Cats think they should beat has been a common theme this year. Another has been head coach Joker Phillips' mantra of "Kentucky doesn't beat Kentucky."
Quite frankly, both sum up the season and the story of the recent so-called rivalry with Tennessee.
When the Cats have had a chance to take a game this year, they've shot themselves in the foot. When they've had the opportunity to end the notorious losing streak to Tennessee, they've bumbled, stumbled and crumbled when it matters the most.
Saturday was certainly no different.
"I've never been in a game where you felt as if you had as much control of a game, had a chance to go up 14 and have things change so quickly," a somber Phillips said after the game. "We've got to learn that when you get guys down, you've got to keep them down."
A killer instinct hasn't been the problem this season - getting off to a fast start similar to Saturday's has - but winning games in reach has certainly been an issue. Just think of what could have been had the Cats taken care of business against a hapless Ole Miss team, finished off rallies against Auburn or Mississippi State, or beaten a Tennessee team that appeared to finally be overmatched.
Could'ves, would'ves and should'ves usually spell disappointment, though.
"I would say it was a season of missed opportunities," Phillips said. "We were a football team that made mistakes, shot ourselves in the foot."
Against Tennessee, the Cats were knocking on the door of history early in the first quarter. After dodging an early bullet when UT kicker Daniel Lincoln missed a 28-yard chip shot, UK took complete control of the first quarter, outgaining Tennessee 156-28.
The Cats ran the ball down the Volunteers' throats, churning out two long, statement-making drives. The first was a 10-play, 80-yard drive that ended in a 17-yard touchdown run from Derrick Locke. The second was a 16-play, run-heavy march that was heading for at least a 10-0 UK lead, if not a 14-0 command.
But then, holding form to the rivalry's true nature, the tables quickly turned. Locke, who up until that point had bludgeoned the Tennessee run defense, fumbled the handoff from Hartline at the 1-yard line and the Vols recovered in the end zone.
"Momentum, it definitely hurt," said Hartline, who finished the game 31-of-44 for 272 yards, a touchdown and an interception. "We definitely needed those points. That's one thing you can't do down there. Obviously it was just a little miscue by Derrick. He went a little wide, but I've got realize that and make something out of nothing and pull the ball away; take a loss instead of a turnover."
What followed was the stuff of legends. Or at least UK made it look that way.
The Cats' secondary made true freshman Tyler Bray look like an NFL Pro Bowl quarterback in the second frame as Bray carved up the defensive backfield for three passes of 44 yards or more to Denarius Moore on three straight drives.
By halftime, UK felt fortunate just to be trailing 14-7 with the way Bray was throwing the ball. The four-time starter finished the game 20-of-38 for 354 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
"You've got to go up (on those long passes) and at least knock them out or go up and intercept it because we had a couple of guys in position to intercept them," Phillips said. "We've got to make the adjustment and make the play."
Kentucky came out in the second half and made another strong statement with an 11-play, 76-yard drive to tie the game at 14-14, but when the Cats got the ball back with a chance to take the lead, they went four-and-out.
Later, when Bray made one of the few mistakes he made all game and tossed an interception in UK's end zone, the Cats could do nothing with the ball and squandered the opportunity.
Then, in the fourth quarter when UK had the ball at the UT 37 on fourth-and-2 with a chance to tie the game, Phillips elected to punt the ball away. Ryan Tydlacka's punt bounced into the end zone for a touchback, resulting in a net 17-yard gain. Tennessee went on to kick a field goal.
After more than a quarter of a century of ineffectiveness against the Vols, one has to wonder how much of a mental advantage Tennessee holds over at Kentucky at this point.
"This has been happening to us all season, not just with them, turning the ball over in critical times and not executing," junior wide receiver Randall Cobb said, who may have played his final regular-season game in a UK uniform (link will be added). "That's what it comes down to."
The loss makes Kentucky's bowl picture look bleak. Whatever chance there was of going to an out-of-Tennessee bowl like the Gator Bowl or the Chick-fil-A Bowl is completely dashed. Now Kentucky looks destined for the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., or even an at-large bowl completely out of the conference's bowl tie ins.
At this point, returning to Tennessee suddenly seems like paradise. An AutoZone Liberty Bowl representative stood in the press room during Phillips' postgame news conference and seemed to express his desire to have UK back for the second time in three years.
Phillips and UK would be wise to push for a return trip to Memphis, Tenn.
"It's never bitter when you get bowl eligible, but the thing we would have liked to have done is finish strong," Phillips said. "We had a chance to be 3-0 to finish the season, which we hadn't done around here in a long time. We missed an opportunity."
They have no one but themselves to blame for that.