Cats, Vols seeking jump-start on next year in season finale

jsmith3@herald-leader.comNovember 29, 2013 

  • Kentucky at Louisville

    When: Noon Saturday

    TV: ESPN2

    Records: Louisville 8-3 (5-3 ACC); Kentucky 5-6 (2-6 SEC)

    Series: Kentucky leads 14-12

    Line: Louisville by 12½

Stop us if you've heard this one.

A team with a new head coach struggles with a lack of playmakers and depth. It struggles with an inexperienced, inconsistent quarterback.

Same team pins lots of hope on the future with a top-10 recruiting class for next season, but can't overcome a brutal schedule of Southeastern Conference football games this season.

Same team has zero chance of making a bowl, but talks about starting next season off on a good note and sending off its seniors with a victory.

Turns out it's not just the résumé for Kentucky, but also for the Cats' final opponent of the season: Tennessee.

"They are a team I think a lot like us in that they play some games extremely hard trying to do anything they can to get a win," UK Coach Mark Stoops said of the Volunteers. "They are a team that's getting better and their program is moving forward. ... I think similar to us in a lot of ways."

More than anything, the two teams living in the same basement of the league are looking for any kind of positive on which to build.

"Our whole goal is to be 1-0 after this week; 1-0 to start the off-season, to continue to improve and get better," Tennessee head coach Butch Jones said this week.

But it could just as easily have been Stoops saying that to preview the Cats' Senior Day matchup with the Vols.

"I want to feel good coming out of this game," he did say.

UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown agreed. "It's an opportunity for us to go into the off-season with positivity," he said.

It's also an opportunity for both teams to end some negative streaks they'd like to not be saddled with heading into the off-season.

For Kentucky, it's 17 consecutive losses to fellow Bowl Championship Series foes, including a 15-game losing streak against SEC opponents, dating to 2011 when the Cats beat Tennessee with a wide receiver playing quarterback.

Senior offensive lineman Ja'Wuan James said this Tennessee team is different than the one that fell at Kentucky in 2011.

"It is way different," he said. "We have that sense of pride and accountability for the younger guys. We are not going to let them slip up or let this week of practice go to waste just because we lost our opportunity to go to a bowl game."

For Tennessee (4-7, 1-6), the ugly streak is 12 straight road losses dating to 2010, including 11 in a row on the road in the SEC.

UT senior kicker Michael Palardy said the Vols are hungry for a road win, to prove that they're capable of getting one.

"We've got to finish 1-0 so we can start a streak for teams to come," he said. "That's kind of the biggest thing, the most important thing, to show that we're not giving up on each other, on the coaches and on our team."

Coaches on both sides are trying to up the ante on a game that won't mean much to either team in the long run. Coaches on both sides are looking for ways to motivate struggling teams in this final week.

"You rely on your seniors, and you rely on your leadership, and you rely on your pride," Jones said. "We are playing for a lot. We are playing for our seniors as well. There is a lot at stake."

This game represents a chance for Kentucky (2-9, 0-7) to steady the ship after an uninspired throttling at Georgia last week, which was a culmination of a long, frustrating season, injuries and recent suspensions.

Maybe this game even represents a chance to quietly take a few steps up and out of the conference basement.

"We're playing Tennessee, who is in a lot of ways in a similar spot to what we are: new program, really good recruiting class coming in, season hasn't gone as well as they would've liked it to go either," Brown said.

"It's a rivalry game. I think our kids will be excited. That's our job, to get them excited to play. ... There's a lot to play for."

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241 Twitter: @jenheraldleader Blog:

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