UK Football

Mark Story: Calling Kentucky-Tennessee football a 'rivalry' really a stretch now

After the 2007 season-ending game, Kentucky quarterback Andre Woodson could only sit on the field at Commonwealth  Stadium as Tennessee celebrated its 52-50 win in four overtimes.
After the 2007 season-ending game, Kentucky quarterback Andre Woodson could only sit on the field at Commonwealth Stadium as Tennessee celebrated its 52-50 win in four overtimes.

After Mark Stoops watched his team get pulverized 63-31 by Georgia on Saturday, the Kentucky football coach began his post-game news conference by shifting the focus to UK's final two games, at Tennessee and at Louisville.

"We're a .500 football team," Stoops said of the 5-5 Wildcats. "We've got our two biggest rivals left, so we'll see if we can regroup."

Stoops was half right. Louisville is now Kentucky's biggest rival in all sports. However, it is well past time to stop pretending that UK and UT are football "rivals."

When one side has won 28 of the past 29 games between two teams, a "rivalry" you do not have. Even the Southeastern Conference seems to have given up on the idea of Kentucky and Tennessee as "rivals."

Every year but one since 1953, Tennessee had been the last game of UK's football season (the exception was 2001, when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks caused the postponement of a Kentucky-Indiana game that was rescheduled as the season finale).

This year, however, Tennessee is the next-to-last foe on Kentucky's slate. Louisville is replacing the Volunteers in the season-ending "rivalry slot" as part of a de facto SEC-ACC challenge that also will see Florida-Florida State, South Carolina-Clemson and Georgia-Georgia Tech play on the final weekend.

In 2015, Kentucky and Tennessee are scheduled to play in Commonwealth Stadium on Oct. 31. For UK, that game will be the season's eighth — not exactly the traditional slot of a "rival."

The new reality isn't easy to accept for fans who came of age when meetings between the Big Orange and the Big Blue were the games you circled on the schedule.

"It is what it is. Over a quarter of a century, Kentucky has one win," said Oscar Combs, who founded and formerly owned The Cats' Pause and is now part of the UK radio network pre-game show. "There's no rivalry to that."

Kevin Atwood, 53, a banker in Cadiz in Trigg County, is the UK fan I know who has been the most invested in the Wildcats beating Tennessee in football. By late in The Streak — the 26-game period when the Vols topped the Cats every season from 1985-2010 — Atwood would email me frequently with different scenarios to explain why the next UK-UT game would absolutely, positively be the one in which Kentucky would scale Rocky Top.

"It will always be a rivalry to me," Atwood said. "But for the majority of my life, when you look at how one-sided it's been, it's pretty much only been a rivalry in my mind."

There was a fleeting period when the Kentucky-Tennessee series was non-competitive in the opposite direction.

The March 3, 1958 Lexington Herald noted that in the 23 most recent meetings between UK and UT in football and men's basketball, "the Wildcats have won 21 times, gained a tie ... and lost only once. Kentuckians love it, but Tennesseeans are tired of seeing the Big Blue carry off all the laurels."

During that one stretch of the 1950s, Kentucky football went 6-1-1 against Tennessee. All but the first of those six UK wins were claimed by Blanton Collier-coached Wildcats teams.

Alas, since Kentucky parted ways with Collier (and his 5-2-1 career record versus UT) after the 1961 season, UK has scored a whopping seven football victories over the Volunteers in the years since — 1962, '64, '76, '77, '81, '84 and 2011.

For those whose allegiance is to the Blue, we have just lived through perhaps the most frustrating phase of the Kentucky- Tennessee football non-rivalry. Since 2006, if you take out UT's 7-1 record against UK, Tennessee is 49-53 overall in football, while Kentucky is 49-54.

UK outplayed UT in Knoxville in 2006, but lost. The Wildcats should have beaten the Volunteers in Commonwealth Stadium in 2007 and 2009, but lost in overtime(s) each time.

So in a time when the gap between the football proficiency of UK and UT has been substantially less than the historical norm, the only victory the Cats have to show for it came with wide receiver Matt Roark filling in as an emergency quarterback because of injuries in 2011.

All of which is why, from the Kentucky perspective, moving the Tennessee contest around the schedule and treating it as "just another game" should be embraced. When you are mired in a 1-28 slog versus a foe, anything that shakes up the status quo is worth a shot.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader