We're not really media and we don't work for the university, but we at RTT like to accentuate the positive and tell you why you should care about the matchup each week, whether it's Tennessee-Martin or Alabama. But the last few years, the Tennessee-Kentucky game hasn't needed any extra juice. Part of this is because the two programs have met in the middle over the last five years: the Cats have earned bowl eligibility for the fifth straight year, while the Vols continue to struggle through transition, and since 2006 both teams are 36-27 overall.
The difference, of course, is that Kentucky can't beat Tennessee. The Vols have won 25 in a row in this series, the nation's longest active streak in an annual rivalry game. So while the talent gap has closed and UK has become a respectable program, and even though the games with UT have gotten closer (five times in the last decade the Vols won by only one possession, including twice in OT), the only way they'll earn respect from the Vols is by beating them.
The matchups themselves have also sold themselves recently: in 2007, the Vols needed to beat Kentucky's best team in two decades to win the SEC Championship, and we were treated to an outstanding football game that still stands as the most recent truly great Vol win. The following year, Kentucky would serve as the final opponent of the Phillip Fulmer Era. For two very different reasons, the stakes were very high...and both times, the Vols broke Kentucky hearts. We're quite good at it, actually, and just when you think we've run out of ideas, we invent new ones.
So here we are again on Thanksgiving Weekend. Kentucky is again bowl eligible, and if the Vols still have the more talented team, it's by a narrower margin than I can ever remember. The Vols are a three point favorite, which basically means Vegas thinks we're even and the Vols are playing at home. Kentucky averages 35 points per game, and the Vols average 38 since Tyler Bray took command - all signs point to a close, high-scoring affair.
It's big for Kentucky because they all are against us, at least until they beat us. But once again, it carries special significance for us as well: win, and not only are you bowl eligible...but you can call Derek Dooley, Year One a success. Lose, and you can't.
Obviously, Dooley doesn't want to be the guy who gives the streak up. A loss on Saturday would not only give him that distinction, but would derail the precious momentum the Vols have worked so hard to build. From the ashes of the final play at LSU and consecutive losses to Georgia and Alabama by a combined 82-24, Tennessee found a spark in Columbia, and then set Memphis and Ole Miss on fire. And even when Tyler Bray, catalyst of November, faltered in the second half at Vandy, the Vols were still good enough to get the job done.
They're probably not good enough to beat Kentucky without a good effort from Bray. Momentum is only as good as the next win, and by themselves none of these November victories would be impressive. We have to have them all to get the payoff - not just the bowl game, but the momentum. If the Vols lose on Saturday, no one is going to say, "Man, that Derek Dooley and that Tyler Bray, they really turned it around! I mean, they beat Memphis and Vanderbilt, and a four/five win Ole Miss team!" Momentum is a four game winning streak or nothing at all.
We made this point before the winning streak started, and it's still valid: while he may have had better luck counting to 11 in Baton Rouge, even General Neyland would've struggled with this team against this schedule. If the Vols lose to Kentucky, it's not that Dooley's first season is a disaster (just ask him) - this isn't pass/fail. But it is credit/no credit - or better stated, if we lose, Dooley gets an incomplete. Plenty of us would spend the offseason talking ourselves into what we saw against Memphis, Ole Miss, and Vandy - and believe me, I'll be at the front of that line if I have to be - but if the last impression we get is a loss to Kentucky, it's going to be a hard sell. If we end the season with four wins, year one is a success and I will firmly believe in Derek Dooley for the future. If we end the season with a loss to Kentucky, year one is a wash, and I will firmly hope that Derek Dooley is the right man for the job. There's an important difference between the two.
Expect fireworks on Saturday. The rivalry between the Tennessee and Kentucky athletic departments has been moving toward Defcon 1 since Bruce Pearl showed up - we'll have the boys from A Sea of Blue on the podcast tonight at 9:00 PM to talk about all things UT/UK. If UK ever beats us in football, it'll completely change the nature of what used to be a "Wait 'til football/basketball season" rivalry.
Kentucky is good enough to beat us straight up, and if they do it won't be luck. But until they do?
The Cats and Derek Dooley have a ton to gain on Saturday. Only one will leave Neyland Stadium with a world of new respect. But until they prove it? Until they beat us?
I expect to win.