Between 1976 and 1984, Kentucky defeated Tennessee on the gridiron four times. Those were the good ol' days.
Saturday, the Wildcats will try for the 27th time since '84 to beat the Vols and put a positive note on a disappointing season, which has seen that streak of consecutive bowl trips end at five.
"It hit me pretty hard after the game," senior Stuart Hines said of that realization setting in. "After a couple of days, you start looking forward to what you have left. Playing Tennessee, Senior Day and having a chance to end this streak."
Tennessee is still alive for postseason play but it must beat UK to qualify. But Knoxville News-Sentinel beat writer Mike Griffith says there's another reason the stakes are high for the Vols in this matchup.
"In my first interview with coach Dooley, I told him 'your biggest game of the year is against Kentucky'. That's a game Tennessee always wins and if you beat Kentucky, then people will believe that Tennessee football hasn't fallen on that bad a times,"Griffith told "The Leach Report" radio show this summer. "As tough as things have been, it's still football at Tennessee. There's quite a comparison to Kentucky basketball when you talk about fan interest and passion."
Tennessee players don't want to get the label of being the team that lets the Kentucky streak come to an end, so the Vols carry extra motivation into this game, just like the UK players have a strong desire to be the squad that ends it.
"It is a big deal," said Vols' radio voice Bob Kessling this week. "And it's a big deal to coach Dooley because he wants to be bowl-eligible. He thinks this is a big game because you want to have some momentum going into next year."
Tennessee caught a break last week when quarterback Tyler Bray was able to return ahead of schedule from a broken thumb. Bray gave UT a spark late season and his big-play ability was perhaps the key difference in the Vols' win over the Cats in Knoxville.
Bray threw two interceptions last week against Vandy, including one at the goalline that was returned for a touchdown, but he also made enough clutch throws to get the Vols the victory.
"I thought he really looked rusty. He made a couple of throws that were just very un-Tyler Bray-like," Kessling observed.
UT is relying more than ever on it passing game as the Vols rank dead last in the SEC in rushing offense--a stat very unlike Tennessee football historically.
Vol fans might not agree but getting back to another bowl game would be a nice achievement for a UT team that had the league's toughest schedule, drawing LSU and Arkansas in the rotation with the West. Along with permanent opponent Alabama, that meant Tennessee had to play the top three teams in the current BCS rankings while a team like Georgia, by the luck of the draw, avoided all three.
"This team, because of inexperience and the lack of depth, that was just a killer. They had a five-game stretch where they didn't score a touchdown in the second half," said Kessling, noting the defense was hit especially hard by personnel losses. "They lost Janzen Jackson, who was the eraser guy back there. They've struggled defensively. They play two true freshmen linebackers and they play two (more) in the secondary. They're bound to mistakes and they have. It's just a depth issue. The second half, they've just worn down."
Kentucky, meanwhile, is left to lament losses in games like Louisville and Mississippi State, when a few plays here or there could have swung the outcome the other way and had the Cats playing for a bowl bid this week, too.
"It's hard to say," replied Hines, when asked what went wrong this season. "I felt like this team had a lot of potential. The talent is there--what we're lacking is execution. We're right on the egdge a lot of times. We've got 10 guys doing the right time and one guy messing up. But that's the definition of bad football. You got to have everybody doing their job."
Perhaps Saturday will be the day.