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Notebook: Tennessee the final stop in sendoff of seniors, Phillips

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UK will close out the regular season at Tennessee on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK will close out the regular season at Tennessee on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Almost exactly a year ago, the Kentucky football team was in the midst of preparations for Tennessee, Matt Roark was just learning he would play quarterback and "the streak" was still intact.

Now, the Wildcats are looking to start a streak of their own with a second win in a row over the Volunteers.

"That would be a great accomplishment for us and the seniors, the coaches," junior tailback Raymond Sanders said. "We want to send everyone out the right way. To be able to beat those guys two years in a row would be a great accomplishment."

UK-UT is a heated game no matter the circumstances. But as Sanders suggests, emotions will be running even higher come 12:21 p.m. ET on Saturday in Knoxville, Tenn. On both sidelines, a group of seniors and coaches will be participating in the border rivalry for the final time.

"I'm sure they'll be as hungry as we are and hungry to get a win to get us back for last year," junior linebacker Avery Williamson said. "We beat them in our house so it's going to be a big rival game. They got nothing to lose; we got nothing to lose so it's going to be a big battle."

For the Cats, the season hasn't gone as planned, but winning back-to-back games over Tennessee for the first time since 1976-77 would be a sweet way to go out.

"It would mean a lot just to finish out for these seniors," Joker Phillips said. "There's a lot of history like that that we're trying to change, and this would be one of those things that would be a plus, one of the things that this class has changed if we can get it done."

For those that will return next season, it would be an excellent way to start an important offseason.

"It would mean a lot because we have a pretty young team, lots of injuries, a lot of different things that's been going wrong this season," Sanders said. "To end the season on a couple wins, get some momentum and show those guys that we can we can win and this is the way you've got to do it."

With the upcoming coaching change, uncertainty is inevitable. Taking some momentum into the coming weeks and months would make that uncertainty easier to cope with.

"We don't know what's coming next, but we want to end the season with some wins and come to work this offseason to improve and get better," Sanders said. "With those guys getting experience and a couple seniors coming back, we feel like we can guide those guys to get the right work ethic and get in the film room more and do the little things so you can be more prepared."

Cats not over thinking future

The talk is inescapable. Even for UK's players, who are mired in a routine of practice and school, it's impossible to tune out the rumors of who their next head coach will be.

There is no group more interested in Phillips replacement than the players set to return next season, which leads classmates, family and friends to ask them often for the scoop. The Cats' answer is pretty simple.

"We don't even know," junior defensive tackle Tristian Johnson said. "When people come up and ask you questions about the next coach is I want to say, 'I'm in the same boat as you.' "

The fact of the matter is that no one really knows who will next lead the program, including those who will make the decision. Players can't help but think about the search since it means so much to them, but they are doing their best to stay focused on what they know and can control.

"We don't really talk about it too much. We really just focus on the season and try to finish out strong, but there is talk," Williamson said. "You can't just not see it, stuff on Twitter and everything. There's talk about it, but we try not to make it too big of an issue right now."

Making that easier is the fact that this bunch of Cats truly enjoys being a team.

"We're just happy to be together," Johnson said. "It's crazy because everybody this year is saying it's a tight bunch of guys and really it is. For us to know it's our last week together, all of us - seniors, coaches - we're going to blow it up and stay together."

Even though he won't be with the players he helped bring to Kentucky after this season, Phillips is taking it upon himself to encourage them to stay together in 2013 and beyond.

"We've got to leave these guys with positive attitude because the show goes on, and that's what we have tried to do," Phillips said. "I heard one of the guys say, 'I don't know about being here,' and I said, 'What do you mean you don't know about being here? It's the place for you.' It is the place for them, and I expect them to stay here, stay together and get this thing turned."

Phillips challenges fans to support former Cat's cancer battle

In the wake of the loss at Arkansas last month, Phillips cited a former UK player battling cancer as an example of perseverance and what the Wildcat football family is all about. He didn't name the player at the time, but on Monday he confirmed that former offensive lineman Michael Scott is facing pancreatic cancer.

During Kentucky's bye week, Phillips visited Scott at his home in Fulton, Ga. On Monday, Phillips said Scott will be given the game ball from UK's win over Samford.

"There is no bigger Wildcat than him," Phillips said.

Scott is at home under hospice care and Phillips is encouraging UK fans to pray for him and offer their financial support to his family.

"I would like to challenge a thousand Kentuckians to give $100, I understand there are those that can't, but for those that can, I would challenge them to," Phillips said. "Nobody loves this school more than Mike Scott."

Learn more about Scott's story at this Facebook page and go to this page to donate.

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