Despite sharing a border and only being separated by less than 200 miles, Tennessee-Kentucky has never been much of a rivalry in terms of parity.
Twice in the last 30-plus years Kentucky beaten their Appalachian neighbors, including last season when the Wildcats knocked off Tennessee in Lexington, 29-26. A Jarrett Guarantano hail Mary as time expired was hauled in by Jeff George before being stopped inside the five with no time left on the clock.
But even with Kentucky’s two recent wins in the past three decades, it is a game that has been largely dominated by Tennessee, who holds a convincing 79-25-9 lead in the overall series. The Wildcats have not won in Knoxville since 1984, and not only are they slight favorites in this year’s edition of the game, they are ranked in this match up for the first time since 1977.
Following the loss to Georgia last week, the SEC East is off the table for this 7-2 Kentucky team, but that doesn’t make the season a failure. The Wildcats, with three games left, have a legitimate shot at finishing the regular season 10-2 and a date with a New Year’s Six Bowl could very well be awaiting them in the postseason if they win out. We all saw that coming, right?
Still, there’s a lot at stake for Tennessee, too.
The Vols looked to be turning the corner under Jeremy Pruitt after a 30-24 win over then-No. 21 Auburn on the road. Even being on the end of a 58-21 rout at the hands of top-ranked Alabama in their very next game, it was looking like bowl eligibility a year removed from a 4-8 campaign was an almost certainty with five winnable games left on the schedule.
Those odds took a big hit a week later as Tennessee let a lead over South Carolina in Columbia slip away late in their fifth loss of the season. A 14-3 win over C-USA foe Charlotte the following game left much to be desired as well as many questions. Can this Tennessee team even beat Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt down the stretch?
An APR score could send the Vols into the postseason at 5-7, but something tells me that’s not how Pruitt wants to get there. Beating Kentucky would have to build the team’s confidence in their last two contests, needing just one more win to reach bowl eligibility the way they’d prefer. On top of that, this game provides an opportunity for Tennessee to score two top-25 wins in one season-something they’ve only done twice in the regular season since 2007. Lastly, they have a chance to do something Kentucky tried for decades before: spoil their season.
The last time a Tennessee-Kentucky game meant this much was the 2007 regular season finale. The Vols entered Lexington in need of the win to punch their ticket to Atlanta for the third time in seven seasons. A loss would have sent Georgia instead. Tennessee lead 31-14 in the third quarter before Kentucky stormed back, sending the game into overtime on a field goal in the final seconds of regulation. Tennessee would eventually clinch the eastern division crown in four overtimes in a thrilling 52-50 finish. Like so many games before, Kentucky missed out on dashing Tennessee’s championship aspirations.
There may not be any championship aspirations left for either team this time around, but Tennessee’s need for two more wins and a bowl berth versus Kentucky’s shot at their first-ever New Year’s Six bowl spot makes this match up as intriguing as ever, no matter how ugly it may look come Saturday.