Amid a football season in which Kentucky and Tennessee have performed better than preseason expectations, the reality is that both the No. 18 Wildcats and the Volunteers are seeking to end two-game slides Saturday night at Kroger Field.
Tennessee's recent losses transpired against No. 13 Ole Miss on Oct. 16 and No. 4 Alabama on Oct. 23, so there wasn't any shame in that, which was the case Oct. 16 when Kentucky succumbed to top-ranked Georgia. This past weekend, however, the Wildcats were upset 31-17 by unranked Mississippi State while the Vols had an open date.
"Obviously a team like that comes off a loss and they're fired up to get back out there and take it out on the next guy," Tennessee redshirt junior right end Jacob Warren said Monday in a news conference. "They're going to correct the mistakes they made, so we've just got to go in there and play our best ball."
Kentucky used a 74-yard Josh Ali punt return to snag a 7-0 lead at Mississippi State midway through the first quarter and had a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter before the Bulldogs reeled off 31 straight points. Will Levis, the Kentucky quarterback who transferred from Penn State, was intercepted three times, while Wildcats junior running back Chris Rodriguez fumbled at the UK 26 early in the third quarter to help MSU extend a 17-10 lead to 24-10.
The Wildcats didn't score an offensive touchdown until a 17-yard pass from Levis to DeMarcus Howard with 13:37 remaining.
"I don't want to have a football team like this, and I don't think these guys want to play that way," Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said in his news conference. "That's not who we're going to be. That's not going to be our identity. We'll get back to work and get it fixed to make sure we get the right guys out on the field who want to continue to play like we play."
Said Wildcats junior receiver Wan'Dale Robinson: "At the end of the day, the sky is not falling and the world is not over or anything like that. We still have a chance to do some things that haven't been done around here in a long time."
A win by Tennessee this week would give the Vols a 5-4 record and all but assure a winning ledger in Josh Heupel's debut year given that they close the regular season with home games against South Alabama and Vanderbilt. By topping the Vols, the Wildcats could take a huge step to a 10-2 regular season given their closing stretch of Vanderbilt, New Mexico State and Louisville.
Kentucky could then attain an 11th win in a bowl game, something that last happened in 1950 when Bear Bryant coached the Wildcats.
Saturday's weather forecast in Lexington, where the Wildcats have downed Florida and LSU this season, calls for temperatures descending into the 30s after kickoff.
"It's something our kids get exposed to and the last couple of weeks in particular," Heupel said Monday, referencing Tennessee's morning practices. "We've been out in some chilly weather that should be similar to what we'll get at kickoff Saturday night."
When asked about competing in the cold, Vols senior receiver JaVonta Payton said, "Personally, I hate it."
Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker, the graduate transfer from Virginia Tech, wasn't even the starter at the beginning of this season but now ranks fourth nationally in passing efficiency and recently drew the praise of Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy.
What has led to such a rapid rise?
"I think it's his consistency in the way that he's played throughout the course of the season and his ability to get better every single week," Heupel said. "He's been efficient and has taken care of the football. He's been accurate on short, intermediate and deep throws, and he's shown the ability to use his feet.
"All those factors compiled give him the opportunity to have an opportunity at some point to have a career at the next level, too."
Monday's news conference marked the first time Heupel has addressed last week's announcement that sophomore quarterback Harrison Bailey had entered the NCAA transfer portal.
"Harrison has been a really good teammate inside of our program from the time that I've gotten in here," he said. "In some ways, I'm disappointed in the timing of when he made that decision, but it's a different era in college athletics with the transfer portal over the last couple of years. Because of who he is and what he's about, I love both the person and the player, and I wish him a ton of success as he moves on."
Said Payton: "At the end of the day, he's our brother, and we'll support him wherever he goes."
Heupel said that Tennessee's collection of walk-on quarterbacks will vie this week for the third-team role behind Hooker and Joe Milton.
Odds and ends
Tennessee's home game with Georgia next week will be televised by CBS with a kickoff shortly after 3:30 p.m. ... Heupel on the injured trio of running back Tiyon Evans, right tackle Cade Mays and nose tackle Elijah Simmons: "I don't want to say anything concrete at this moment, but I do think all those guys are leaning towards having the opportunity to play."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.