Heupel not about to let Vols view Saturday as a ‘trap game’

Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Right guard Javontez Spraggins waves a Tennessee flag following last November’s 45-42 win at Kentucky, which was the biggest triumph for the Volunteers in Josh Heupel’s debut season.

Tennessee's biggest win of Josh Heupel's inaugural season was the 45-42 outlasting of No. 18 Kentucky last November in Lexington.

Heupel was asked Thursday if he was worried that Saturday night's rematch against the No. 19 Wildcats inside Neyland Stadium might be viewed as a "trap game." This season's Volunteers are 7-0 and No. 3 in the country with a trip to top-ranked Georgia awaiting next week.

"It doesn't matter how you phrase it," Heupel said during his final news conference of the week. "The only one that matters as a competitor is the next one. Everybody can be talking about the last one, but you're only as good as your next performance and being able to refocus and regroup and be consistent.

"What's been great about this team is that one week at a time we've found a way to be the best team on the field, and the way we do that is through preparation and the way we practice."

Saturday's pairing of ranked teams marks just the third such occasion in the Tennessee-Kentucky rivalry and the first time since 1951, when the top-ranked Vols thumped the No. 9 Wildcats 28-0 in Lexington on their way to that season's national championship. One year earlier, No. 9 Tennessee defeated No. 3 Kentucky 7-0 in Knoxville.

Those two games pitted legendary coaches Robert Neyland and Paul "Bear" Bryant.

"That does surprise me that it's been 71 years," Kentucky 10th-year coach Mark Stoops said. "Hopefully we'll both continue to be ranked as we're playing. For myself, it's about taking care of my own backyard and our own program and trying to continue to improve.

"We all know you go through adversity and ups and downs through seasons, and you have to be able to pull yourself out of them."

If Tennessee prevails Saturday and Georgia downs Florida in Jacksonville, next week's matchup would be the first top-three showdown in Sanford Stadium history. The Bulldogs hosted a top-four pairing in 1983, when they were ranked No. 4 and fell 13-7 to No. 3 Auburn.

Next week may receive more hype than Tennessee's 52-49 topping of Alabama earlier this month, but the Vols and Bulldogs have longtime rivals they must first subdue. That's where Heupel knows the focus has to be when Kentucky provides the latest challenge.

"You've got to cut it loose on game day and play harder for longer than your opponent," Heupel said.

More than a month

It's now been more than a month since Cedric Tillman's high-ankle sprain midway through the second quarter against Akron, and the Vols fifth-year senior has yet to return. The questions regarding his status have not subsided, and that included Thursday.

"We'll see where he's at when we get through tomorrow and on game day," Heupel said, echoing his statements from previous Thursdays. "Cedric is going to be a part of that decision, and our medical staff is doing what's best for him in the long term and short term."

Vols take back seat

Kentucky has three wins over Louisville in their past three meetings and three wins over Tennessee in their last 37 encounters.

Despite those totals, Stoops made it clear this week when asked which rivalry gets the most attention when he travels out and about.

"Just because where we're located, you hear more about Louisville," Stoops said. "We live in the same state, and that's definitely something you hear more about."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.