Mark Story

Continuous Tennessee football chaos is creating a big opportunity for Kentucky

Kentucky football’s Mark Stoops reacts to Tennessee’s stunning loss to Georgia State

Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops is asked about Tennessee’s stunning 38-30 loss to Georgia State last Saturday. The Vols were a 26-point favorite before losing their season opener.
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Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops is asked about Tennessee’s stunning 38-30 loss to Georgia State last Saturday. The Vols were a 26-point favorite before losing their season opener.

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When Mark Stoops was asked Monday about Tennessee’s shocking home loss to lowly Georgia State, the Kentucky Wildcats football coach was diplomatic.

After UK’s 38-24 victory over Toledo in its 2019 season opener, Stoops said he watched some of the final moments of Georgia State’s 38-30 victory over UT.

“It can happen to anybody, so I am not going to sit up here and throw stones, that’s for sure,” Stoops said at his weekly news conference at Kroger Field. “You’ve heard me say it before, (in college football) you’ve got an opportunity to be humbled every seven days.”

Let’s take a final moment to absorb the full magnitude of the humbling Tennessee was handed last week.

Georgia State was 2-10 in 2018. It was picked to finish last in the Sun Belt Conference East Division in 2019.

The Atlanta school did not begin playing football until 2010 (under former Kentucky coach Bill Curry). The Panthers only joined the FBS in 2013.

Before Saturday, not only had Georgia State never beaten a Power Five conference foe, it had lost seven of the eight such games it had played since 2013 by 28 points or more.

This is the lowest point yet for a once-mighty Tennessee football program that has fallen and cannot seem to get up.

In one sense, Tennessee’s football decline has been as frustrating for Kentucky backers as for Volunteers fans. Even as UT has struggled in recent years, it has remained dominant in the head-to-head series vs. UK.

Since 1984, UK has only silenced Rocky Top twice, 2011 (Ladies and gentlemen, Matt Roark) and 2017 (the Stephen Johnson touchdown dive).

Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson dove across the goal line to score the winning touchdown in UK’s 29-26 victory over Tennessee at Kroger Field in 2017. Ken Weaver

The Wildcats should have beaten the Volunteers in 2007, 2009 and 2018 but didn’t, and they outplayed them in 2006, too, but still lost.

Whether Tennessee has a good team or a bad one, Kentucky always has a hard time squeezing the Big Orange dry in football.

Yet that dearth of head-to-head success for UK vs. UT has, to some degree, masked some larger trends.

Since 2006, Tennessee has played in seven bowl games; Kentucky has played in eight.

Since 2008, Tennessee has endured seven losing seasons; Kentucky has endured six.

After Stoops became UK head coach in 2013, the Wildcats are 37-39 overall, 17-31 in SEC contests.

Over the same time frame, Tennessee is 39-37, 16-32 in league games.

From the start of the 2016 season till now, UK is 25-15 overall, 13-11 in the SEC.

Over the same time frame, UT is 18-20 overall, 6-18 in the SEC.

The modern Tennessee heyday (1995-98), when the Volunteers went a combined 45-5 and won the 1998 season’s national championship, recedes deeper into the twilight with each new Vols disappointment.

In the future, college sports historians will study the 21st century downfall of Tennessee football.

If you are one of those fans who wants to fire everybody at the first sign of adversity, the continuing turmoil at UT is the ultimate warning over what can happen when a school gets locked into a cycle of constantly changing leaders.

New Tennessee chancellor Donde Plowman is the sixth person (counting two interims) to hold that position at UT since 2008.

Athletics Director Phillip Fulmer is the fourth person to serve as the Volunteers’ AD since 2011.

Phillip Fulmer at Georgia State game.JPG
Tennessee Athletics Director Phillip Fulmer stood on the sidelines during the first half of UT’s stunning 38-30 upset loss to Georgia State. Wade Payne AP

Jeremy Pruitt is the fifth full-time Vols head football coach since 2008.

One game into his second season, Pruitt, the former Georgia and Alabama defensive coordinator, already seems at a crossroads.

There are almost no truly “must-win” games in sports — but Tennessee’s Saturday home meeting with BYU feels like that for Pruitt. If UT doesn’t tame the Cougars, the waves of negativity surrounding Tennessee football since the Georgia State debacle might capsize Pruitt’s entire operation.

Obviously, the jury is very much out on Pruitt as a head coach. Still, Tennessee would benefit from following Kentucky’s example with Stoops and giving a coach a long leash for a methodical rebuild.

After Stoops inherited a 2-10 UK, he has orchestrated a slow, steady climb. Starting in 2013, Kentucky’s records have progressed from 2-10, 5-7, 5-7, 7-6, 7-6 to 10-3 last year.

During our impatient times, the UK administration stands out for having believed in a coach and given him time to fully implement a plan.

In the meantime, UT football’s plunge into dysfunction has given Kentucky an opening to climb in the SEC East. Last November, it was the Wildcats who faced (and lost to) Georgia in the game that decided the division championship.

For a long time, it seemed the unofficial motto of the Kentucky football program was, “We never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

Yet, right now, it seems as if Stoops and UK are actually taking advantage of an opening — created in part by Tennessee’s perpetual state of football chaos — for upward SEC mobility.


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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.