It was a game that mirrored the entire season for Kentucky.
There were subtle signs of improvement and glaring signs that many more improvements are necessary.
"You know, frustrating loss, but give credit to Tennessee," UK Coach Mark Stoops said after his first season ended in a 27-14 loss to the Volunteers on Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium.
"They played better than us, made plays when they needed to, coached better than us. And so it kind of just seems like that's the way most of the year went for us. Had our opportunities and didn't make them."
It was the Cats' 16th straight Southeastern Conference loss, and they went winless in the league in back-to-back seasons for the first time in more than 70 years.
While Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC) continued its negative streaks, including 18 straight losses to BCS foes, Tennessee was able to halt a couple of its own with the victory in front of a sparse crowd, announced at 54,986.
The Volunteers (5-7, 2-6) ended a 12-game road losing streak.
"The message for them tonight is when you make big plays, you take care of the ball on offense and you have a mindset to win on the road, you can accomplish anything you put your mind to," Vols head coach Butch Jones said.
That road losing streak started for the Vols in 2011 when they fell at Kentucky with a wide receiver playing quarterback for the Cats.
UK had no such trickery in its pocket Saturday night and the few bits it showed didn't work, including a reverse where a wide-open wide receiver fell down.
"Did some good things, shot ourselves in the foot a lot," UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown said after the loss. "Bottom line is we're not good enough — not good enough to go out and win games. We've gotta make more plays, gotta coach them better."
Tennessee needed only two plays in the game's opening 26 seconds to put Kentucky in a hole it would never dig out of when Rajion Neal went 60 yards into the end zone. The running back finished with 20 carries for 134 yards.
To put an exclamation point on the quarter, the Vols struck again, when Jason Croom hauled in a 43-yard pass from Joshua Dobbs to give Tennessee a 14-0 advantage.
Midway through the second quarter, UT took a commanding 20-0 lead when Dobbs tucked and ran 40 yards for a Volunteers score, but Michael Palardy's extra point was no good.
It took nearly two quarters for Kentucky's offense to find its way, but three Wildcats plays to Jojo Kemp and Dyshawn Mobley helped set up a Maxwell Smith 19-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Kendrick.
It was the first career score for the Kentucky tight end, one of 19 players recognized before the game on Senior Night at Commonwealth Stadium.
"It was an amazing feeling; I wish the final results of the game would've been better, but it was a good way to go out," he said. "I enjoyed that touchdown. It was amazing."
Kentucky was outgained 281-194 in the first half, including 175-63 on the ground, with 100 of the Vols' yards coming on those two touchdowns.
Kentucky's opening drive out of the half, once again got into Tennessee territory, but failed to end in points. The Cats' second two drives of the half resulted in minus-8 yards and lasted a little more than 1:15 each.
Tennessee scored again late in the third quarter when Joshua Dobbs hit Devrin Young for a 7-yard pass to give the Volunteers a 27-7 edge. Young had four catches for 66 yards.
Dobbs connected on 14 of his 23 attempts for 199 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for another touchdown.
With 3:41 left in its season, Kentucky was able to find the end zone one last time when Smith hit Javess Blue with a short pass that the junior-college transfer turned into a 14-yard touchdown.
One bright spot for Kentucky's offense was Dyshawn Mobley, who had 17 carries for 143 yards.
In his final two games of the season, Mobley had 27 carries for 235 yards.
Maxwell Smith, the only Cats quarterback to throw a pass, went 25-for-38 for 254 yards and two touchdowns. Neither Smith (shoulder) nor starter Jalen Whitlow (neck spasms) was able to practice much last week because of injuries.
"He really gave it everything he had," Stoops said of Smith, who was sacked five times Saturday. Nearly all of them were by senior defensive lineman Corey Miller, who had 4.5.
"(Smith's) arm was bothering him," Stoops continued. "He took a shot last week and his arm was bothering him a little bit this week. You know, again, those guys tried to do what they could."
Stoops and staff vowed to do what they could to help UK rebuild with the players returning and the players the Cats are hoping to bring into the program.
"We know this isn't going to be an easy task and again, we're going to go to work starting tomorrow," Stoops said. "We're hitting the road. We're going to grind it out in recruiting and our players are going to start lifting and running and we are going to build this program."
Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.