TENNESSEE (4-7, 1-6 SEC) AT KENTUCKY (2-9, 0-7)
7 p.m. * Commonwealth Stadium, Lexington, Ky. * ESPNU/106.5 FM
Despite the losing records, there are a few things at stake tonight.
Kentucky wants to give first-year coach Mark Stoops his first SEC win, and the Wildcats would love beat the Vols a second time in three seasons after snapping that 26-game losing streak in the two programs' last meeting in Lexington in 2011.
For the Vols, it's the final game in orange for a prideful group of seniors, and the coaching staff and underclassmen are approaching the game as a preface to the offseason and next season.
Tennessee and Ohio State are the only programs to have never had an eight-loss season, so that's on the line, too.
"That's motivation right there," Vols right guard Zach Fulton said, "and pride, pride as a man and pride in being a Tennessee Volunteer."
One to watch
Tennessee's offense was a mess last week against Vanderbilt, and the absence of Marquez North was a big reason why. The freshman receiver suffered a high ankle sprain early in the game and did not return. He's been rehabbing this week, but he's done little in practice and remains questionable for tonight.
If North, who has 38 catches for 496 yards this season, can't play, look for Pig Howard to slide to outside receiver spot and Johnathon Johnson and Devrin Young to slide into Howard's slot spot. Jason Croom and Josh Smith also would need to step up their play.
"We've got to use different skill sets," receivers coach Zach Azzanni said. "We've just got to move those guys and be creative. Marquez still might play, so that's definitely not counted out."
In the end
How does Tennessee bounce back from the loss to Vanderbilt, a game the Vols thought they had one before the instant-replay booth controversially overturned Tennessee's fourth-and-inches stop? With no bowl game, Tennessee must manufacture its own motivation.
Kentucky's two wins came against winless Miami (Ohio) and Alabama State of the FCS. The Wildcats were blown away at Georgia last week, and their closest defeat was a 28-22 loss at Mississippi State.
Tennessee and Kentucky are 12th and 13th in the SEC in both total offense and total defense, but a game like this typically comes down to which team wants it more, or perhaps which team doesn't want it less.
Prediction: Tennessee 19, Kentucky 12
KNOXVILLE — And then there was one.
Tennessee had hoped its trip to Kentucky wouldn't be the last one of its first football season under coach Butch Jones, but the Volunteers will face the finality of the season when they leave Lexington tonight.
Come Sunday, Tennessee's coaching staff will hit the road and begin trying to put the finishing touches on a touted and much-anticipated 2014 recruiting class, returning players will turn the page to next season and departing seniors will reflect on what may have been and the legacy they've left.
"I would hope it would be that I'm a guy that just tries to bring energy," defensive end Corey Miller said. "I just want my guys -- I tell [freshman end Corey] Vereen all the time, 'Don't let what's going on this year dictate what goes on next year. Be the guy that starts it off from the jump. Be the guy that's giving energy. Be the guy that's leading the team.' I hope that's what it is.
"I always tell myself every day if I would have known what I know now back then, I probably would have done a little bit more. I guess that's the message, to tell these guys to do a little bit extra. This time flies by, and normally you don't understand it until it's gone."
It's almost gone for the five players whose careers began in 2009, including defensive linemen Daniel Hood and Marlon Walls and linebacker Greg King -- the three remaining players from former coach Lane Kiffin's lone signing class -- and 11 players from the 2010 signing class.
Those fourth-year players, part of Derek Dooley's first class after he took the job following Kiffin's abrupt departure to Southern California, enter their final game with a 20-28 record, six SEC wins, a 2-2 record against Vanderbilt, the 2011 loss to Kentucky -- the Vols' first to the Wildcats in 26 years -- one bowl game appearance and four consecutive losing seasons.
"We're labeled as a lot of things, this 2010 class, breaking streaks or starting streaks," right tackle Ja'Wuan James admitted. "We don't want to do that. We just want to go out here and try to compete and try to get a victory."
That victory actually would stop another dubious streak the program has built the past three seasons. The Vols have a 12-game road losing streak dating back to a 2010 win at Vanderbilt. They last won a true road game outside the state when the edged the Wildcats in overtime in Lexington in 2009.
The Vols' last visit to Kentucky, of course, ended with a 10-7 loss that knocked Tennessee, in its second year under Dooley, out of a bowl game and snapped a streak that dated back to 1984. Tennessee outlasted Kentucky in four overtimes in the 2007 trip.
Jones has preached "going 1-0" to his team this week, and motivation is a question mark given the Vols' late-season slide.
"The lifespan of Team 117 is down to like six days now," James said five days ago, "so we've just got to put in work this week and go out there and have fun playing the game we love for the last time together."
Defensive coordinator John Jancek believes this senior class has helped set a foundation for rebuilding the program.
"The impression they leave on me is that they're able to handle adversity," he said. "They're a group that's tried to do everything that we've asked of them. They're very coachable and had a great attitude and mentality throughout the course of the season, whether it's been good or bad.
"The thing that I think these guys are going to be remembered for is that they were the brick that changed the culture, and that's really going to be their legacy. They're the group that bought into what it is we were asking them to do on a day-to-day basis. I know that our record and some of the things on the field don't indicate that change, but believe me, there's a markable difference in the way these kids are working and the way we're doing things on a day-to-day basis, and that's really what this class will be remembered for."
Asked what advice he would give to his younger teammates, tailback Rajion Neal gave an interesting answer.
"I would definitely say enjoy it," he said. "Buy in, have fun, work hard and enjoy it. I can honestly say that Coach Jones is either going to kill somebody or this is going to be an NFL sweatshop. They've got some good things aligned, and they're pushing. I truly believe this place is going to be something big. I'd just say buy in, have fun and just keep going."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...
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