In 1984, Kentucky beat Tennessee 17-12 in Knoxville. Since then, the Vols have won 24 consecutive games against the Cats, the longest active win streak in an annual rivalry in college football. Kentucky has had their chances at various intervals along the way, but the Vols have always found a way to turn them back. There were a pair of four quarter rallies in 1987 & 1988. There was a furious comeback in 1995, with Peyton Manning and the #4 Vols down 31-16 in the third quarter in before scoring the game's final 18 points in a 34-31 win. UK's best teams under Tim Couch had the misfortune of playing UT's best teams, as the Vols beat the Cats 56-10, 59-31 and 59-21 during his time in Lexington in the late 90s.
In this decade, Kentucky has had several opportunities, most notably in 2001 when Jared Lorenzen led Kentucky to a 21-0 lead before faltering in a 38-35 Tennessee win (featured at #30 on our list). And in the last five years, Kentucky has come close three times, only to again and always be turned away.
Two games in Knoxville (2004 and 2006) produced tight fourth quarters, but the Vols still won. But more importantly to the nature of the overall rivalry, two things have happened during the same five year span that have increased the stakes:
Kentucky has become a consistent bowl team, having now made three straight appearances. Rich Brooks has the program moving in the right direction, and the Cats have made themselves into a team that you cannot take lightly. Many thought after Andre Woodson's class graduated in 2007 that UK would go back to the pack, but instead the Cats still got bowl eligible last year while doing a little rebuilding.
But at the same time, Tennessee got good at basketball.
For about 20 years, conversations between UK and UT fans went like this: Tennessee would destroy Kentucky in football, UK fans would say "Wait 'til basketball season", then Kentucky would return the destruction in Rupp Arena and Thompson-Boling, and UT fans would return the favor verbally with "Wait 'til football season." That's how it worked. We had an understanding, and we were on even terms.
But since Bruce Pearl came to Knoxville, things have changed. Pearl's ability to beat Kentucky on an almost even basis - three wins in four years is better than just about anyone else has done in Knoxville - and his consistent ability to finish above the Cats in the standings has thrown a new factor into this rivalry. UT has improved in basketball and UK has improved in football...difference is, Kentucky still hasn't found a way to beat the Vols.
In this increased atmosphere, losers of 22 straight in 2007, you'd think the Vols had run out of ways to break the hearts of the UK faithful. But with a trip to the SEC Championship Game on the line and the ultimate roller coaster season hanging in the balance, Tennessee and Kentucky played one for the ages on November 24, 2007.
13. 2007: #19 Tennessee 52 - Kentucky 50 (4 OT) (Lexington)
The craziest college football season of my lifetime had done a number on both teams as we entered the final week of the regular season. The Vols had lost three games by a combined 77 points, the season opener and to their two biggest rivals. But when the Vols kept trying to give it away, Florida kept giving it back, and when the Gators lost to Georgia in late October, Tennessee needed a string of four consecutive SEC wins to get to Atlanta.
Already bolstered by their dominant win over what would become #2 Georgia, Tennessee went to work. They blew a 21-0 lead against South Carolina, but still found a way to win in overtime. Then a defense that had been maligned all year completely shut down Heisman frontrunner Darren McFadden and Arkansas in a 34-13 win. Then they allowed their old friends at Vanderbilt to build a two touchdown lead in the fourth quarter, before rallying to win 25-24. The Vols were battered but still standing, and despite Georgia's poll position and Florida's Heisman quarterback, Tennessee needed only to beat Kentucky for the 23rd straight year to get to Atlanta as Eastern Division Champions.
This wasn't the same Kentucky, however. The Cats made their own luck right out of the gate, beating #9 Louisville 40-34. In their first five games, Andre Woodson's attack had scored 40+ points every week in a run that moved them to #8 in the polls. Though they would fall to South Carolina, the Cats came back to stun #1 LSU in triple overtime.
After that, it seemed like Kentucky ran out of gas. When they fell just short against Florida, they were ripe for the letdown against Mississippi State, who pounded them 31-14. They barely beat Vanderbilt and then lost to Georgia, meaning their 6-1 start was now a 7-4 finish. But already bowl eligible, Kentucky would have a chance to end things against their biggest rival, on senior day for so many of their stars.
I sat in the upper deck at Commonwealth Stadium for this one, and was amazed watching the Senior Day introductions at how many of their major contributors were leaving: Andre Woodson, Rafael Little, Keenan Burton, Jacob Tamme, Wesley Woodyard, along with three additional senior starters. One last chance to beat the Vols for all of these guys.
For Tennessee, win and you're dancing in Atlanta. Lose, and you've gone 8-4 with four inexcuseable losses. Like we said, the roller coaster was going to finish at the highest high or the lowest low.
The Vols wasted no time in giving the impression it was going to finish high: David Cutcliffe saw something in the film room, and on the first play the Vols went play action, and then Erik Ainge fired back down the sideline to the trailing Arian Foster.
Later in the quarter, the Vols used a big play from Brad Cottam to set up a quick strike to Lucas Taylor and a 14-0 lead. The Vols had 178 yards of total offense in the first quarter.
The difference between this game and the other long overtime ones is that regulation was plenty good here also. UK answered to make it 14-7 in the second, and Daniel Lincoln knocked home three to make it 17-7. The Cats would have the ball at their own 30 with less than a minute to play in the half, but in trying to get points they made a costly mistake: Xavier Mitchell made a heady play and got his hands on a dump pass, with the rare defensive lineman interception giving Tennessee a chance to add to their lead. And with :17 on the clock, Ainge fired a bullet to Quintin Hancock, giving Tennessee a 24-7 halftime lead.
The Kentucky fans booed The Pride of the Southland at halftime. Which means I probably said "Wait 'til basketball season!" about a hundred times in fifteen minutes.
Six minutes into the third quarter, Kentucky scores to make it 24-14. We started to get a little nervous perhaps, but another Kentucky turnover gave the Vols the ball at UK's 30 with three minutes left in the third. And when Ainge hit Jeff of the Brothers Cottam, the Vols led 31-14 with 1:31 left in the third quarter.
So while I'm working the cell phone from the upper deck trying to round up the caravan for Atlanta next week, Kentucky goes the length of the field in 90 seconds, scoring a touchdown on the final play of the third to make it 31-21. Hmmm.
The Cats would knock on the door again midway through the fourth, scoring with 6:11 to play to make it 31-28. And now, our full attention returns to the game at hand. When the Vols again do nothing offensively, Kentucky gets the ball back with under five to play. A field goal will tie, a touchdown will give them the lead. It happened too fast for us to fully process it.
That's when Jerod Mayo went to the hit stick. Woodson found Jacob Tamme over the middle, but Mayo separated Tamme's consciousness from the ball, and Ricardo Kemp scooped up the interception. All is well, right?
Well, sort of. The Vols move to the 38 but can't get closer, and instead of trying a 55 yard field goal, elect to punt and pin Kentucky back at their own 9 yard line. 3:32 remaining. I told my friend as we sat there, shivering in the cold and the fear, that if Kentucky drove 91 yards in three and a half minutes against our defense, we didn't deserve Atlanta anyway and somebody was getting fired.
Instead, Kentucky drove 90 yards in three and a half minutes. Watching UK's march downfield against our prevent defense was both familiar and incredibly depressing, and with every first down you felt our season and the futures of Phillip Fulmer and John Chavis slip away. The Cats made it to the one yard line with five seconds left, then gave everyone in the stadium four seconds of cardiac arrest when Woodson dropped a shotgun snap, picked it up and rolled right, fired for an open man in the end zone but missed him...all while keeping one precious second still left on the clock. Seriously, did anyone on either side breathe during this play?
The Cats have one second and one yard...and elect to kick an extra point to tie the game and play overtime. Okay.
Watching the highlights again, I think this is a record for the number of times Bob Kesling uses the words "wide open". Kentucky scores in three plays in the first overtime to make it 38-31. At this point the Cats have scored 24 consecutive points, and Tennessee hasn't done anything good on offense in twenty minutes. But one great catch by Gerald Jones will change that:
In the second overtime, disaster strikes. On second down, a pass for Lucas Taylor gets knocked into the air on contact, and with the ball hanging there everyone wearing orange knows what's coming next - a Kentucky player steps in front of it, and it's the overtime turnover kiss of death.
Tennessee fans can't wait to head for the exits. There's an exodus from the upper deck, a full season of frustration now coming full circle, with fans in orange beside themselves with not just depression, but anger. How could you let this game, with two separate second half 17 point leads, and this season, with Atlanta on the line, get away from you...against Kentucky, of all teams, with 22 straight years of victory now heading to the toilet. Meanwhile, now it's Georgia fans on the phone, securing their own tickets to the Georgia Dome...which for me, just gives what happens next an extra burst of joy.
Example #4120581 of why you never leave early: Kentucky runs three plays to the 18 yard line, and then sends Knoxville native Lones Seiber on for a 35 yard field goal that will end 22 years of frustration. And really, this game is the ultimate in Blair Witch video quality:
Never leave early.
Tennessee has their chance in the third overtime. Kentucky scores but fails to convert the two, giving them a 44-38 lead. The Vols face third and eight, but Gerald Jones makes a great move after the catch to get a first down, and on the next play Ainge swings it to Austin Rogers, who darts into the end zone, and now the two can win it for Tennessee.
A great call almost paid off, a shotgun handoff to Arian Foster who goes left, but a great tackle by David Jones ends the threat. Then Foster is handed one of the great injustices of SEC officiating, penalized fifteen yards for unsportsmanlike conduct for flipping the ball when he didn't make it. When Eric Berry was almost decapitated on the blocked field goal return earlier, the 15 yard facemask penalty wasn't awarded because the overtime period had ended, and penalties don't carry over. But this one was considered a dead ball foul, and so the Vols will start their fourth OT possession at the 40 instead of the 25.
It took one play for us to get over it.
This time, the Vols do convert the two, which means we can breathe for the first time in about an hour with a 52-44 lead. The best Kentucky can do is tie and send it to a fifth overtime.
The Cats don't go quietly. UK moves to first and goal at the three, and Derrick Locke punches it in to make it 52-50. So they need the two point conversion to tie and keep playing.
So, I always bring my digital camera with me to games, for tailgating and pregame festivities. I don't like using it during the game because it's distracting, and the two times I'd tried it on big plays in 2006, the Vols gave up 4th down conversions to Florida and LSU, so it was becoming something of a curse. But here, with the 4th OT action on our end of the field, I decided what the hey and tried to see if I could capture a little history:
Sixty minutes, four overtimes, two blown three possession leads, a stop at the one yard line, a blocked field goal, a ridiculous penalty and 22 years of history...and at the end, Tennessee makes it 23, and is the champion of the Eastern Division.
- Total Offense: Kentucky 564, Tennessee 520
- Erik Ainge: 28 of 45, 397 yards, 7 TD, 3 INT
- Andre Woodson: 39 of 62, 430 yards, 6 TD, 2 INT
1,000+ yards and 100+ points in a game that was equally compelling in regulation and overtime. And for the Vols, the win here meant everything, putting a roller coaster regular season to its finish on a good note, and securing a championship in 2007. As the Vols play for the silver anniversary against Kentucky in 2009, I'll once again say that I'm sure we've run out of ways to break their hearts...probably...
[Note by Joel, 06/20/09 2:02 PM EDT ] Post script: This game also gave birth to the Fiddler/Teyve meme and this video: