John Clay

John Clay: Cats in position to finish the Vols

John Clay
John Clay

In the early 1990s, Tennessee produced a video commemorating 100 years of Tennessee football. It was your typical year-by-year review, accentuating the high points, downplaying the lows. Quite a bit of time was spent on Robert Neyland; as for his unsuccessful successors, not so much.

The 1976 season built to the climactic end-of-the-year rivalry game between Kentucky and Tennessee. The winner was assured a berth in the Peach Bowl. The loser was done for the year.

If I remember correctly, the UT video admitted that Kentucky squeaked out a 7-0 victory and continued on to its first bowl game in a quarter century.

I distinctly remember the next line.

"Tennessee Coach Bill Battle resigned the next day."

I don't remember the video saying Battle resigned in shame, but maybe that went without saying.

Point is, just as there have been few Kentucky victories in this UK-UT series — not a single Big Blue triumph since 1984 — there have been even fewer instances when the Cats had a chance to keep the Vols from getting what they wanted. There's just that chance on Saturday.

First and foremost, Kentucky wants to snap an embarrassing 25-year losing streak to the Big Orange, to put a positive vibe on what has been something of a disappointing season, all the while cementing a happy place in the UK scrapbook.

"Even if (the streak) was 20 years, or 15 years, that would be the team that everyone would remember," UK quarterback Mike Hartline said. "It's like when we beat Alabama for the first time in a long time, that's what everyone is going to look at. They're going to remember this team, the good and the bad, but they're always going to remember that we beat Tennessee."

But in Tennessee, Saturday would be remembered as the Kentucky team that ruined Tennessee's chance at earning a bowl bid in its first season under head coach Derek Dooley.

"If we knock them off and they don't become bowl eligible, we might be able to climb another rung on the ladder in bowl position," UK offensive tackle Brad Durham said this week. "That's mainly our goal. To come out and get a win would be something special for us."

In the past, the shoe has been on the other foot, and Tennessee didn't mind doing the kicking.

There were nine instances from 1974 through 1997 when Kentucky entered the Tennessee game needing a win to either clinch a bowl bid or secure a winning season, or both. The Cats won just one time — the '76 blanking of the Vols that cost Battle his job.

Two years earlier, in 1974, Fran Curci's second season as the Kentucky coach, the Cats had gone to Knoxville needing a win to clinch a Peach Bowl berth. UK quarterback Mike Fanuzzi suffered a concussion, and Tennessee walked off with a 24-7 win.

Just from 1979 to 1988 there were five occasions when the Cats needed a victory over Tennessee to finish the year with six victories, which in those 11-game campaign days meant a winning season. Tennessee won all five.

"I was part of some of those teams," UK Coach Joker Phillips said.

Phillips played on the 1984 Kentucky team, the Jerry Claiborne-coached edition that beat the Vols 17-12 in Knoxville. But the Cats didn't knock the Vols out of a bowl. Tony Robinson and Co. went on to the Sun Bowl, where they lost to Maryland.

But as the author Gore Vidal once said, "It is not enough for me to succeed. Others must fail."

Kentucky is bowl eligible. Tennessee is not. The Cats have a chance to keep it that way, making the taste of victory twice as sweet.