By Dr. John Huang
My online dictionary defines a rivalry as “a competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field.” Taking that definition to heart, the upcoming Kentucky versus Tennessee football game certainly qualifies as such.
First of all, the objective for both teams is obviously to win the game. As for superiority in the same field, however, the Vols definitely have had the upper hand over the years.
Big Orange domination
Anyone with even an inkling of knowledge of football in the commonwealth concedes that the Big Orange has thoroughly dominated the Big Blue over the past half century. For example, of the last fifty games played, Tennessee has won 44 of them, including a streak of 26 in row from 1985-2010. For Kentucky fans, rather than a rivalry—it’s been a beatdown, an embarrassment, and a humiliation they’d like to soon forget.
But things are different now, right? The Tennessee program has been in free fall the past few years while Kentucky’s has been on a consistent upwards rise. You’d think the playing field would be virtually level by now.
Well, think again. During the most recent decade, the Vols still sport a gaudy 8-2 mark against the Cats. Moreover, last year’s 24-7 drubbing in Knoxville was a stark reminder that some things may never change. Even in a magical season in which Kentucky won ten games, they still laid an egg when it came to playing Tennessee.
That game joins the long pantheon of heartbreaking losses to our neighbors down south. Whether it’s Mark Higgs in 1987 failing to score on four straight carries from the five-yard-line, or Randall Cobb in 2009 never even touching the ball inside the ten-yard-line, or in 2007 when Lonas Sieber’s chip shot field goal in overtime got blocked, Kentucky always found a way to lose to the hated Vols.
Forget the past
This year promises to be different. First of all, the game will be played at Kroger Field. Kentucky (4-4, 2-4 SEC) opened as a three-and-a-half-point favorite. They should be well rested coming off their second open date of the season. Lynn Bowden, Jr. has been on fire, and the rest of the team is confident, cocky, and capable.
Tennessee (4-5, 2-3 SEC) is coming off an impressive 30-7 win over UAB at home last Saturday night. The Vols have won three of their last four and are not the same team that was beaten by Georgia State earlier in the year. Included in that stretch are wins over two teams that have defeated Kentucky—Mississippi State and South Carolina.
Defensively, Tennessee ranks third nationally with 13 interceptions this season. Most noteworthy, linebacker Darrell Taylor is one of the SEC’s top pass rushers and has six sacks to his credit. Additionally, the Volunteers also have a strong punt return game, ranking second nationally with over 21 yards per return.
In contrast, the Vols’ offense has struggled at times and checks in at 107th nationally. That’s not to say they don’t have talented players. Watch out for wide receiver Jauan Jennings, averaging 80 yards per game with seven touchdowns. Likewise, Marquez Callaway also ranks 11th nationally in yards per reception.
Are current UK players aware of the rivalry?
For Kentucky fans, there are two games on the schedule every year that mean more than all the others. Louisville is one, Tennessee is the other. Do the players feel the same way?
“I think they do,” said Coach Mark Stoops when asked at his weekly press conference. “They feel the energy of our fan base. It’ll be nice to be at home and have a great crowd and play well at home. That’s our focus. We will touch on that (the rivalry) a bit. We won’t overdo it, but we will talk to them about it.”
I don’t care what the record book says, for long-suffering Kentucky Football fans, this remains a rivalry of the highest degree.
Dr. John Huang is a regular columnist for Nolan Group Media. Portions of this post appeared in the November 6 print editions of Nolan Media Publications.