Mark Story

Why UK football’s recent standing vs. Tennessee should both please, torment Cats fans

Let’s indulge in a little Kentucky-Tennessee football quiz:

Question one: Since 2006, which football program has produced the most bowl teams, UK or UT?

Answer: Kentucky has played in eight bowl games since 2006; Tennessee has played in seven.

Question two: Since 2008, which football program has endured more losing seasons, UK or UT?

Answer: Tennessee has had a losing record seven times in a season since 2008; Kentucky has had six losing seasons over the same time frame.

Question three: Since Mark Stoops became Kentucky head coach in 2013, which program has won more Southeastern Conference football games, UK or UT?

Answer: Since 2013, Kentucky has 19 SEC wins; Tennessee has 18 SEC victories (both teams have 35 league losses).

As the 2019 Wildcats (4-4, 2-4 SEC) and Volunteers (4-5, 2-3 SEC) prepare to renew their border-state battle Saturday night at Kroger Field, the above numbers should encourage Kentucky football fans.

With UT football having fallen far from its 1990s heyday and UK football having made some upward strides, the Wildcats and Volunteers programs have been closer in caliber over the past 13 seasons than anytime since the 1970s.

Alas, to the ever-lasting torment of UK fans, the head-to-head outcomes between Kentucky and Tennessee have not reflected that reality.

A season ago, the best Kentucky football team in 41 years laid a dinosaur egg at Neyland Stadium. Ranked No. 12 in the country and headed to a 10-3 season, UK suffered a 24-7 upset loss to an eminently mediocre Tennessee team that finished 5-7.

That loss took some of the joy out of an otherwise bountiful year for the BBN.

From the UK perspective, the head-to-head numbers against Tennessee are just grim.

In the 2000s, the Wildcats are 2-17 against the Volunteers.

The Cats are 2-34 vs. the Vols since last winning in Knoxville in 1984.

From the end of World War II till now, Kentucky is 14-56-3 vs. Tennessee in football.

However, when Jeremy Pruitt and the improving Volunteers enter Kroger Field on Saturday night, Stoops and troops have a chance to make some rare positive history against UT.

After a horrid start that featured a stunning home loss to Georgia State and a dramatic “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory” loss to BYU, Tennessee is playing good football.

The Volunteers have won three of their past four, including home wins over two SEC foes — Mississippi State and South Carolina — that beat Kentucky.

Even the one UT loss in the stretch, a 35-13 defeat at Alabama, saw the Vols put up a spirited battle against the Saban-ic forces.

UK also enters on an uptick. When Kentucky, out of desperation, shifted dynamic wideout Lynn Bowden to quarterback three games ago, it energized the Wildcats season.

Bowden ran for 196 yards and two touchdowns and threw for a score to lead Kentucky over Arkansas 24-20.

In a 21-0 loss at Georgia that was more competitive than that score suggests, the 6-foot-1, 206-pound junior rushed for 99 yards against a defense that had not surrendered a 100-yard rusher all season.

Two weeks ago, Bowden ran for 204 yards and two touchdowns and set up a third UK score with a 44-yard pass as Kentucky played its most complete game of 2019 in a 29-7 win over Missouri.

It will be fascinating to see if a Tennessee defense that held UAB to 63 yards rushing in last week’s 30-7 win can contain the Bowden magic.

Climbing out of a long-running losing rut against an opponent begins with small steps.

A Kentucky victory over Tennessee on Saturday night — added upon UK home victories over the Volunteers in 2011 and 2017 — would give the Wildcats a 3-2 mark vs. the Vols on their home field this decade.

UK has not had a winning mark vs. UT at home in a decade since going 4-1 against Tennessee in Lexington in the 1950s.

Following on the Wildcats’ 2017 victory over the Volunteers in the “Stephen Johnson Touchdown Dive Game,” a win Saturday would give the Cats their first back-to-back home wins over the Vols since 1957 and 1959.

UK-Tennessee football Weaver004
Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson dove into the end zone to score the game-winning touchdown in UK’s 29-26 win over Tennessee in 2017. Ken Weaver

With a victory in 2019 added to his 2017 victory, Stoops can become the first UK coach with multiple wins over UT since Fran Curci (1976, 1977 and 1981).

In 2011, with wide receiver Matt Roark at quarterback, Kentucky recorded one of the sweetest victories in its sports history, a 10-7 win over Tennessee that snapped a 26-game losing skid vs. the Rocky Toppers.

Matt Roark vs UT
A wide receiver playing quarterback, Matt Roark, left, directed Kentucky to a 10-7 win over Tennessee in 2011 that snapped a 26-game UK losing streak vs. UT. Jonathan Palmer

Come Sunday morning, Kentucky fans hope the following quiz will yield this pleasing answer:

Question: What is UK’s football record vs. UT when the Wildcats start a wide receiver at quarterback?

Answer: 2-0.

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Saturday

Tennessee at Kentucky

When: 7:30 p.m.

TV: SEC Network

Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

Records: Tennessee 4-5 (2-3 SEC), Kentucky 4-4 (2-4)

Series: Tennessee leads 80-25-9

Last meeting: Tennessee won 24-7 on Nov. 10, 2018, in Knoxville, Tenn.

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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.
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