Lane Kiffin has stirred the pot plenty during his short tenure in Knoxville, but the first-year Tennessee football coach is playing things politically correct leading up to the Volunteers' game at Kentucky on Saturday.
Tennessee's 24-game winning streak against Kentucky provided the perfect opportunity for Kiffin to rub a little salt in the wound, but the coach said at his weekly news conference Tuesday that he's not even thinking about the streak and was highly complimentary of the Wildcats.
"The history of this series means nothing to this game," he said. "I'm sorry, it doesn't. Those players that were playing in that streak aren't here anymore. We are playing a team where their seniors have won just as many games as our seniors. We are playing a team where their seniors have been to more bowl games than our seniors. So we would love to keep it alive only because it is the next game on our schedule, and we want to win it, and it is a big-time SEC game for us. Sorry to say, (history) has nothing to do with it. This is not the old Kentucky team; you all know that."
Tennessee comes into Commonwealth with an unremarkable 6-5 record, but the Volunteers are a much different team now than they were in September. They easily beat Georgia and South Carolina and came within a blocked field goal of knocking off No. 2 Alabama. The only recent hiccup was a 42-17 loss at Mississippi that came on the heels of three players being arrested for attempted armed robbery.
The UK coaching staff said the Vols look as if they've settled into the Kiffin regime.
"Anytime there's a coaching change and a new philosophy comes in, sometimes it takes a little while for the system to be more efficient," UK Coach Rich Brooks said. "That time has passed, and they're efficient now."
"They look like a good team right now as opposed to earlier, when they were trying to figure out who they had and what they were doing," UK defensive coordinator Steve Brown said. "Now they're playing extremely fast."
Tennessee's defense and running game have been solid throughout the season. The most noticeable difference has been quarterback Jonathan Crompton. Crompton's numbers in his first four games were pedestrian: 62-for-105 for 641 yards with seven touchdowns and eight interceptions. But the fifth-year senior has been on a tear the last seven games, going 134-for-228 for 1,694 yards with 18 TDs and just three picks. His 25 touchdown passes are tied for the fourth-highest total in school history.
"He has made major improvement, no question about it," Brooks said. "He's got a rifle for an arm, and he's throwing the ball down the field extremely well."
Kiffin said Crompton's improvement has a lot to do with his supporting cast stepping up. Running back Montario Hardesty (1,127 rushing yards) was Crompton's only reliable weapon at the start of the year. But receivers Gerald Jones (36 catches, 497 yards, four TDs) and Denarius Moore (35 catches, 455 yards, six TDs) have come on strong after overcoming early-season injuries. Former Madison Southern star Luke Stocker (22 catches, 292 yards, four TDs) has been a nice safety valve for Crompton.
"I really thought (Crompton) was going to have a great year," Kiffin said. "He had all the tools and worked so hard to get prepared for the season, I really thought he'd play as well as anybody in the conference. He went through a couple of down games, but it was what was going on around him. We had some guys banged up, some receivers out, had true freshmen in a bunch of spots. Now that's calmed down, we got healthy, and he was able to get some help out there, and it's showed."
Brooks said the team planned to have Thanksgiving dinner Wednesday night and then practice early Thursday. The players who live within driving distance can go home after practice, with arrangements being made for those who can't. The team will be due back for practice on Friday afternoon.
Brooks Foundation event
The Rich Brooks Foundation will be hosting an event from 5-7 p.m. Friday at the Lorillard Building on Price Road. The cost is $60, which includes a chance to win the Rich Brooks F-150 truck and two sideline passes for the UK-Tennessee game. Tickets can be purchased at the door or online at www.richbrooksfoundation.net.
Lyons Jr. book signing
Former UK receiver Dicky Lyons Jr. will be signing copies of the book True Blue, the story chronicling the UK football careers of him and his father, Dicky Lyons Sr., on Friday from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Cat Fan-Attic, 1975 Harrodsburg Road.