KNOXVILLE — In many ways, including the competitiveness of the games, the gargantuan gap between the Tennessee and Kentucky football programs has narrowed in recent years.
But the winner and the loser haven’t switched sides in a quarter century.
Kentucky topped Tennessee in a 17-12 stunner in 1984, but the Volunteers have since won every late-November clash with their Southeastern Conference foes to the north.
Right tackle Brad Durham, like many Kentucky seniors, has grown tired of walking around campus this week the past four or five years and hearing classmates say, “This is the year!”
But the past four or five years, along with the previous two decades, haven’t produced that magical moment year.
The Wildcats have come oh-so-close several times.
Kentucky (6-5, 2-5) pushed the Vols (5-6, 2-5) to overtime twice in the past three years, but losses only worsened the Wildcats’ woes.
“I’ve heard it for three years, and I’m already tired of it,” Durham told the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader this week. “Every year is supposed to be ‘the year.’ We’re putting more emphasis on this game than we have in the past to win this game and end the streak, so hopefully this year is the year.
“We can knock them out of a bowl and move ourselves up the ladder.”
First-year Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips privately has put a lot of stock in this matchup. According to the Herald-Leader, “Beat Tennessee” banners are plastered all over UK’s locker room, and the number “517” is boldly taped above the exit door to the Cats’ training facility. The Vols have outscored UK by 517 points during the streak.
Then there’s Randall Cobb, a Knoxville-area native turned versatile All-America candidate for the Cats. The junior wide receiver who grew up about 10 miles from Neyland Stadium and sold hot dogs there as a kid has become a full-fledged star at Kentucky, and this is his last chance to beat his former football love with his current football family.
Cobb hasn’t discussed this game with any great detail this week, but he told the Times Free Press this summer that it was “obviously not just another game” for himself and the team he leads.
“You can’t say it’s just another game for either party,” Phillips said. “You can’t go down there and find any person that will say it’s just another game. You can’t come here and find any, either.
“We’ve got a chance to be 7-5. They’ve got a chance to be bowl-eligible. So it’s a big game.”
The Cats would relish any victory that stopped UT’s embarrassingly long winning streak in this series. But keeping the Vols from a postseason game? Giving UK’s career touchdown leader a homecoming result he’d never forget?
“We can’t have any letdowns, we can’t have any mental mistakes,” UT senior defensive end Chris Walker said. “We have to be perfect to beat a team that’s going to come in with the energy they’re going to come in with. But on the flipside, if we prepare well and we’re perfect on defense, we’re going to win the game.”
And if the Vols don’t beat the Wildcats, they’ll feel the weight of 25 senior classes on their shoulder pads as they trudge through the north end zone tunnel and into the Peyton Manning Locker Room Complex.
“If you think about it, it dwells on you and sticks on you, and you try to do more than you have to,” Vols senior strongside linebacker LaMarcus Thompson said. “Instead of just playing your game, you try to become a superhero, and that’s when everything falls apart. Everybody just has to play their part and do what they’re coached to do, and be disciplined and be sound and go get this victory.”
And if they don’t get this victory?
“We can’t even think that way,” senior fullback Kevin Cooper said. “We can’t think of a negative outcome. I don’t even know what to say to that question. ‘If we were to lose’ ... I don’t even know how to answer that, because that sentence doesn’t exist in my vocabulary.”
It doesn’t exist for many other Vols this week, either.
“That streak, we try not to look at it, but it’s 25 years,” Walker said. “We don’t want to be the senior class that on top of the stuff that we’ve gone through, the senior class that lost to Kentucky.”
Walker said “efficient preparation” — which he’s seen this week — has been the key to avoiding thoughts about the streak and everything that comes with a win or loss today.
“I think it’s going to come down to the way we prepare, as always,” Walker said. “Some people didn’t give us a chance against Ole Miss, and we had our best week of practice preparing for them, and we came out [against them] and it showed.”
UT senior middle linebacker Nick Reveiz, whose entire 5-foot-9 frame is focused on football every time he’s in the Neyland Thompson Sports Center, stated his thoughts rather bluntly.
“Nobody wants to be on that team that finally loses to Kentucky,” Reveiz said. “There’s no pretty way to say it.”
And there’s perhaps no other way to say this: Kentucky could definitely beat Tennessee today.
“When you look at Kentucky, I think it’s as explosive a football team as we’ve seen and as they’ve had in awhile,” first-year Vols coach Derek Dooley said. “They’ve had some great offensive teams. I know that 2007 team was good, and back in the late 90s they had some good ones. But these guys are really good, and as good of a football team I think as they’ve had since even when they were really incredible in the late ’70s.
“They have the formula ... and when you have all those parts in place, you’re going to be good. And they are good.”
But how good?
“You look at the two teams going to the SEC championship game,” Dooley said. “They beat one, and the other one, not many teams have come close to beating, they’re sitting there tied with them midway through the fourth quarter.
“So we’ve got our hands full.”