The Kentucky football team has proven in the past that, even in down years, it is capable of competing with Tennessee. It's closing the deal that has been the problem.
In 1995, a 4-6 UK team blew a 24-9 third-quarter lead and allowed Peyton Manning and the Volunteers to pull off a 34-31 comeback win.
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Guy Morriss's first Kentucky team won only two games, but a fumble on a late fourth-quarter drive let UT off the hook, 38-35.
Joker Phillips had a solid audition for the offensive coordinator position he would eventually get in the 2004 season finale. Phillips took an offense that had labored through most of a 2-8 campaign and developed an imaginative game plan that produced 31 points, which was two touchdowns more than the Cats had scored in any other Southeastern Conference game. Still the Cats came up short, 37-31.
Rich Brooks has brought the Kentucky program to respectability since then, and you could make a case that UK outplayed Tennessee each of the past two seasons. Yet Tennessee's streak of 23 straight wins over UK, the longest such streak in the nation, lives on.
The Cats dropped a physical 17-12 slugfest in Knoxville two years ago. The Vols also won last year's 52-50 four-overtime classic.
Neither team has a high-powered offense coming into Saturday night's matchup, which increases the likelihood of another nail-biter. If so, the Wildcats (6-5 overall, 2-5 SEC) know they have to be in position to close it out.
"We know we can play with them; we've known that for a while," said senior cornerback David Jones. "We've got to prove we can beat them. So many times we've been close. When the game's on the line, we just have to be able to step up and make a play."
The Wildcats are 3-4 this season in games decided by a touchdown or less after coming up empty in back-to-back barn burners against Georgia and Vanderbilt.
"We've tried to stress to the players that you have to maintain focus and intensity for four quarters, because so many of these games come down to one or two plays," Brooks said. "And if you look back over the past couple of weeks, it's been one or two plays that have gotten us beat."
On paper, the Vols look ripe for the plucking this year. However, even in down years, Coach Phillip Fulmer's squad has always managed to find a way to deal with the Cats. Saturday night marks Fulmer's final game at Tennessee, and the Vols (4-7, 2-5 SEC) have been one of the nation's most disappointing teams in 2008.
Brooks said he will remind his squad of the 2005 meeting, when UT also limped into the game with just four wins. Tennessee never trailed and won that game 27-8.
"I don't think there's any doubt we'll get their best game," Brooks said. "I remember a couple of years ago they couldn't go to a bowl game, and they still came up here and spanked us. There's no question they'll be ready to play, and we need to be ready to play our best game of the year."
The UK players have dismissed talk of the streak all week, and so has Phillips, who was a starting wide receiver on the last Kentucky team that beat Tennessee in 1984.
"None of these players were born when the streak began," Phillips said. "Each year is different. Each team is different. As much as people still talk about last year's game, it has nothing to do with what's going to happen on the field this year, and neither will the other 22 games in the streak. It will come down to who's the best team on that day and who executes the best."
Brooks said Tennessee's dominance has prevented the series from being labeled a true rivalry.
"The fact that they have had their way with it 23 straight times doesn't make it much of a rivalry," Brooks said. "We need to do a better job on our end of it for it to be a true rivalry. Rivalries have a big element of hatred. I don't sense the real hatred with Tennessee with our fans as in our series with Louisville, and that's probably because we've managed to beat Louisville a couple of times.
"I've told them they will hear about the streak. Usually they all end at some point. It would be a nice thing to end that streak since we've failed to win more regular season games than the previous two teams."