12:21 p.m. * Neyland Stadium in Knoxville * WDSI/106.5 FM
As Tennessee receiver Zach Rogers noted earlier this week, today's game is "a lot about personal pride." Neither team has a bowl game for which to play, and one coach was fired earlier this month while the other is an interim. For Vols fans, it's all about the coaching search, and it's basketball season in Lexington.
This week, the Vols have been dealing with the fallout of Derek Dooley's dismissal and decision not to coach today's game. The Wildcats are looking to send lame-duck coach Joker Phillips, a former Kentucky receiver and a long-time assistant at the program, out with two straight wins against the Vols. The Wildcats carried Phillips off the field on their shoulders after beating Samford last week.
"One of the reasons I'm happy is because you get to see these guys through," Phillips said this week of his decision to finish out the season. "I recruited many of them, and I sat in their homes and told them that I wanted to be the guy to watch them grow up and help them grow up.
"That hit me when a bunch of them talked to me about, especially the seniors, and I'm glad I did. I'm glad I get a chance to see these guys go out. Hopefully we can send them out the right way.
One to watch
Tennessee's players have made this game about playing for 13 seniors, including eight fifth-year players who were around when the coaching changes began with Phillip Fulmer's ouster in 2008. Yet it's fair to wonder if today is the last time receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson and quarterback Tyler Bray suit up for the Vols. All three juniors could elect to forego their senior seasons in favor of jumping to the NFL.
Hunter and Patterson have first-round talent, and while Bray's draft stock has slipped, he still possesses the physical talent that makes him an enticing option for the NFL. The trio could look to put on some fireworks in what might be their final collegiate games. What they say after the game when they'll surely be asked about their upcoming decisions may be more important.
Regardless of the fans' feelings toward the three juniors, those three would take plenty of production with them and leave Tennessee's new coach with some unproven pieces.
In the end
How will the Vols show up today? It's been perhaps the toughest week in a string of tough weeks of distractions and outside chatter for the team. The players should be commended for how they've handled everything from a public and media standpoint.
After holding it together through all of it, the Vols finally came apart in last week's embarrassing loss to Vanderbilt, and it's fair to wonder if they can muster up enough spirit to finish off season that's been filled with disappointment.
"I'd been lying to you if I didn't say it was a distraction," defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri said. "This week, it's been a little bit tougher for them, I'm not going to kid anybody. A lot of them had great relationships with Coach Dooley, and it's been tough."
Has it been tough enough to make Tennessee, which is one of two programs that's never had an eight-loss season, lose to Kentucky in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1976-77?
Tennessee 35, Kentucky 24
KNOXVILLE - It was perhaps the beginning of the end.
A 2011 season derailed by injuries to Tennessee's two offensive stars and blowouts of 31, 31 and 42 points appeared it would be salvaged when the Volunteers beat Vanderbilt in overtime 370 days ago.
All the Volunteers needed for a postseason berth was a win over Kentucky, something that had happened for 26 consecutive years.
Yet the Wildcats, with a receiver playing quarterback and more spirit than the visiting Vols, stunned Tennessee that day in Lexington.
"We got handled," Vols quarterback Tyler Bray said this week, "just like last week."
In terms of embarrassment, last year's defeat at Kentucky and last week's 23-point loss to Vanderbilt are on similar planes. The fallout from each have been similar, too. The Kentucky loss created enough uncertainty surrounding head coach Derek Dooley that seven assistant coaches left the program, all for similar positions elsewhere.
"It was obviously a disappointing loss," Vols receiver Zach Rogers said. "You kind of felt there was going to a little bit of change. We didn't get it done, and this is a results-based industry."
The 41-18 loss in Nashville last Saturday night was the end for Dooley, and his dismissal the next day left the task of finishing another losing season against the Wildcats this afternoon to offensive coordinator and interim coach Jim Chaney, who was one of the two 2011 assistants who stayed.
"My decision to stick around was that: I trusted and believed in [Dooley]," Chaney said. "Also, I wasn't real proud of what we put on the field last year offensively. I didn't want my name attached to that as I depart the University of Tennessee or wherever the path takes me within my profession.
"I wanted to do something about that. That's a little bit of personal pride. But number one, I believed in the man, and I'd do it all over again."
Chaney did do something about the offense this season. With some NFL-caliber talent, the Vols jumped 81 spots nationally in the total-yardage rankings and have produced 145 more yards per game this season. But the Vols' defense was their -- and Dooley's-- undoing.
With Justin Wilcox calling the shots, Tennessee was 28th nationally in yards allowed with three true freshmen among its top five tacklers. When he left for Washington, Dooley hired Alabama outside linebackers coach Sal Sunseri, who hadn't been a coordinator in more than a decade, and planned for a defense that was more aggressive and disruptive. That has backfired, as Tennessee is last in the SEC in yards and points allowed and has statistically the worst defense in the program's history.
While the Vols have allowed 37 points or more in every SEC game, Wilcox's defense entered Friday's game at Washington State ranked 29th in total defense.
"I think some of it was confusion on the kids' part," said cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley, one-fourth of Tennessee's first-year defensive staff. "Some of it was coaching and not putting them in the right position. Some of it was just players not making plays.
"It was a collective effort of why those plays didn't get made."
What will be made in the coming weeks is Tennessee's third coaching change since the end of the 2008 season. While the rumors and speculation about Dooley's replacement have been flying for a while, athletic director Dave Hart's search, the Jon Gruden chatter aside, may not pick up true steam until other college coaches' seasons end today and next Saturday.
The Vols have a game to play today themselves, and it's against the team that might have started their downfall, though it hardly seemed that way when they left the Georgia Dome in the last hours of August and led Florida in the third quarter two weeks later.
"It's been a little bit lethargic, and it's going to be," safeties coach Josh Conklin said of this week. "I think there is a little bit of a shock factor that goes into it and you try to adjust, but I think on Saturday ... these players understand their duty and what they've got to do. They want to finish it out the right way for the seniors and for everybody else."