"Wait 'til basketball sesaon." The Vols are 72-23-9 against Kentucky, and are currently on a 24 game winning streak, currently the longest active winning streak against an annual opponent in all of college football. Several of the games in recent years have been highly competitive, and UK's football program has improved under Rich Brooks...but the Cats have still been unable to breakthrough against the Vols.
Case in point: in Phillip Fulmer's final game, UK was already going bowling, but the Vols got the best of them behind a dedicated effort to run the football: 210 yards rushing complemented one big play from Jonathan Crompton to Denarius Moore, and the Vols won 28-10, sending Fulmer off on the shoulders of his offensive linemen. Kentucky still made it happen in their bowl game, beating East Carolina for their third straight bowl win...but the Pirates were the only bowl team UK beat all season.
The conversation starts with Randall Cobb, the Alcoa native who is being used exclusively at wide receiver this season, while Mike Hartline takes the snaps under center. The Cats were 106th nationally in offense last year, and the thought is Cobb is better able to move that number upward from WR than at QB. That puts Hartline in the giant group of questionable QBs in the conference this season...but at least he won't be alone.
Alfonso Smith will lead the charge at tailback, with John Conner at fullback and only one vowel away from being our only hope for the future. Cobb is going to need help at wide receiver, and his Alcoa teammate Kyrus Lanxter needs to have a big year, something he showed flashes of with 5 catches in the bowl game. There is veteran experience on the offensive line. This offense won't remind anyone of the Woodson/Little/Burton group that lit up the scoreboard in 2007, but they can improve on last year's performance.
With no Jeremy Jarmon, the front line is a little thin, with only one returning starter. Jarmon's removal changed the outlook completely for UK's defense, though there are still two players - LB Micah Johnson and CB Trevard Lindley - who are among the best in the conference at their respective positions. The majority of the projected starters on this defense were backups last year or only saw spot starting duty, which means the Cats will need them to grow up in a hurry. The Cats open with Miami (OH) and Louisville, games they'll certainly have opportunities to win...but then it gets real: Florida, Alabama, at South Carolina, at Auburn. There might still be six wins on this schedule, but the margin of error is significantly less than it was last year.
Best Case Scenario for the Vols
Tennessee gets its Silver Anniversary win over Kentucky, and caps a successful season with at least 8 wins before heading off to the Chick-Fil-A Bowl or better. Freshmen are now regular contributors offering greater hope for the future, Eric Berry makes plays in his final chance to impress for the Thorpe Award, and the Vols end the season on a high note.
Worst Case Scenario for the Vols
By 1 or 100, Kentucky wins. Simple math would suggest it's going to happen sooner or later...but until it does, I'd rather not entertain the idea for very long. Bruce Pearl has already upset the dynamics of the overall UT/UK rivalry, and John Calipari will make sure it goes to eleven just a few short months after this game is played. Allowing Kentucky to gain any sort of edge in football would help swing the rivalry back in UK's favor. If this becomes loss number seven (or worse) for the Vols in 2009, it's even worse.
Game Importance Ranking: 7.8
The win streak is more important to me simply because of the basketball rivalry, if that makes any sense. Right now, there's absolutely nothing a Kentucky fan can say to a Tennessee fan about football. And the Vols have made the basketball conversation more even in the last four years. Maybe theses are just the ravings of a Vol fan who's been living in Lexington for the past seven weeks, but to me that 24 game win streak is of greater importance because of who it's against. This game is about finishing strong, could be about getting bowl eligible for both teams...and is one the Vols need to win.
Recommended Reading - A Sea of Blue