It is the longest active annual winning streak in college football, two dozen years of futility for our friends to the north in the Kentucky-Tennessee rivalry. I was three years old when Kentucky beat the Vols 17-12 in Knoxville in 1984, which means essentially I've never seen it in my career as a Tennessee fan, which is the case for the vast majority of us. I have no idea what's it's like to lose to Kentucky, and the vast majority of UK fans have no idea what it's like to beat Tennessee.
That UK fan base has seen an increase in the last four years under Rich Brooks, as Kentucky will make their fourth straight bowl game this season (and be looking for their fourth straight bowl win). A mirror image sports rivalry that featured Tennessee beating up on Kentucky in football and then the Cats returning the favor in basketball for more than a decade has gone through a significant change in these last four years: Rich Brooks and Bruce Pearl have changed the culture of Kentucky Football and Tennessee Basketball. Now both programs are accustomed to winning where there was once only frustration.
Difference is, while Tennessee has finished ahead of Kentucky in basketball in each of Pearl's four seasons, the Cats still can't beat the Vols in November.
During the last 24 years, the Cats have had their chances...and each time they've come close, the Vols have turned them away. And every time I've worried that the Vols have run out of ways to beat UK - as I am again this year - Tennessee has invented new ways to break Kentucky hearts.
Here's a look at some of the best wins and closest calls over the last 24 years in this rivalry:
1987: #15 Tennessee 24 - Kentucky 22 (Lexington)
A familiar scenario: Kentucky is 5-5 and needs to beat the Vols to get bowl eligible. Tennessee is 7-2-1 behind freshman Reggie Cobb, who runs for 144 yards. As John Clay reminds us in his original story on the game, there was a time when UK didn't bother to keep the grass in Commonwealth Stadium green all year, and this was another cold November game played on the brown turf of the Bluegrass. The Cats led 17-7 in the second quarter, but the Vols would finally get the lead 24-20 with 6:25 to play. Kentucky had first and goal at the five and then fourth and goal at the one, but tailback Mark Higgs was stuffed up the middle, and the Vols took a safety to preserve a 24-22 win and keep Kentucky home for the holidays.
1988: Tennessee 28 - Kentucky 24 (Knoxville)
The '88 Vols started the season 0-6, but strung together wins over Tiger High, Boston College and Ole Miss before hosting the Wildcats. Again required to make a fourth quarter comeback, and again equal to the task, Tennessee would also beat Vanderbilt the following week to close the season on a five game winning streak before winning their first five of the 1989 season.
1995: #4 Tennessee 34 - Kentucky 31 (Lexington)
With snow flurries blowing through Commonwealth Stadium, Kentucky QB Billy Jack Haskins was subjected to one of the worst beatings I've ever seen a quarterback take...and he kept getting up. Behind Haskins and the play of RB Moe Williams, UK built a 31-16 third quarter lead on one of Phillip Fulmer's best teams. But behind Peyton Manning, the Vols came roaring back in the game's final quarter and a half, scoring the game's final 18 points en route to victory, paving the way to a #2 finish nationally.
1997: #3 Tennessee 59 - Kentucky 31 (Lexington)
The Peyton Manning vs. Tim Couch shootout lived up to the hype. The top picks of the 1998 and 1999 NFL Drafts traded blows all afternoon, Couch finishing with 476 yards, 3 TDs but 3 INTs. Manning, playing for the Heisman Trophy that voters had already decided to give to flavor of the month Charles Woodson, set the school record with 523 yards and 5 TDs. Lawvol at Gate 21 has the best flashback piece on this game.
1998: #1 Tennessee 59 - Kentucky 21 (Knoxville)
One of the most dominant performances by the National Championship team, against a Kentucky squad that would play in the Outback Bowl. Tim Couch was still leading the Air Raid, but the Vols jumped all over UK en route to a 38-7 halftime lead on senior day. An alcohol-related car crash earlier in the week that included two fatalities, one a UK player, put an end to the Beer Barrel trophy in this rivalry.
2001: #6 Tennessee 38 - Kentucky 35 (Lexington)
The Vols had scored 50+ on Kentucky four years in a row at this point, but Jared Lorenzen came out firing and UK built a stunning 21-0 lead. The Vols made it 21-7 at the half, then got a crucial 14 points in the third quarter on a Kelley Washington touchdown followed by a defensive score to tie it. Kentucky didn't go away: the Vols and Cats traded blows for the final quarter and a half, with Tennessee getting a field goal to go up 38-35 with 2:49 to play. J-Lo moved Kentucky into Tennessee territory, but Chase Harp fumbled inside the 30, and the Vols recovered to secure the victory. This game came in at #30 in The 50 Best Games of the Fulmer Era.
2004: #15 Tennessee 37 - Kentucky 31 (Knoxville)
With freshman Erik Ainge having gone down against Notre Dame two weeks earlier, the Vols found life difficult with Rick Clausen under center: after losing to the Irish and surviving 38-33 against Vanderbilt, the Vols were pushed to the limit by Kentucky. The offense put up plenty of numbers - 606 yards on the afternoon - but Clausen's pick six gave Kentucky a 17-7 second quarter lead. The Cats led 24-22 at halftime, then got a huge score to make it 31-22 going to the fourth quarter. But the Vols used a trick play, with CJ Fayton passing to Robert Meachem, to set up one fourth quarter score, then went 60 yards in four minutes to finish the job via a Gerald Riggs touchdown run, 12 yards with 12 seconds left.
2006: #19 Tennessee 17 - Kentucky 12 (Knoxville)
Again, Kentucky led going to the 4th quarter, but the Vols scored right away to go up 17-12. Kentucky would have second and goal at the three yard line with under four minutes to play, but a disastrous delay of game penalty led to consecutive incompletions to end the threat.
2007: #19 Tennessee 52 - Kentucky 50 (4 OT) (Lexington)
In our last trip to the Commonwealth, the Vols were at a crossroad: win and you're the SEC Eastern Division Champion, lose and you're an 8-4 football team with serious coaching questions. Kentucky had already knocked off #1 LSU and had their most talented team of my lifetime. The Vols built two separate 17 point leads, but Kentucky kept coming, ultimately driving from their own 10 to the Tennessee 1 in the final minutes. Andre' Woodson missed an opportunity to win the game, but UK kicked a field goal with one second left to send the game to overtime. Once there, UK had another chance to win in the second OT, but Dan Williams blocked Lones Seiber's field goal attempt to keep the Vols alive. In the end, Tennessee stopped Woodson on a two point conversion in the fourth overtime for a 52-50 win in an epic contest: it was 13th on our list of The 50 Best Games of the Fulmer Era, and made the Vols division champions.
2008: Tennessee 28 - Kentucky 10 (Knoxville)
In Phillip Fulmer's final game, the Vols led just 7-3 at halftime against another bowl-eligible Kentucky squad, but pushed the lead to 11 in the third quarter with a touchdown pass from Jonathan Crompton to Denarius Moore. Tennessee ran for 210 yards on the day and eventually wore Kentucky down in a 28-10 win that sent the big guy out the right way.