KNOXVILLE — Tennessee already has fallen short of nearly all its preseason goals.
The Volunteers won’t reach a bowl game. They didn’t avoid a third consecutive losing season. They weren’t even able to save the job of coach Derek Dooley, who was fired Sunday.
But one goal remains within reach as Tennessee heads into its season finale. The Vols still have a chance to avenge last year’s 10-7 loss to Kentucky that ended Tennessee’s 26-game winning streak in this annual series.
“It was tough last year,” Tennessee wide receiver Zach Rogers said. “We didn’t come out with the right foot forward and didn’t come out with the right mindset. We definitely don’t want to do that this year.”
Kentucky found a way to beat Tennessee last season while using reserve receiver Matt Roark as its starting quarterback. Tennessee’s 26 straight victories over Kentucky had represented the second-longest active winning streak by any team over one opponent, trailing only Penn State’s 29 consecutive wins over Temple. Penn State has since extended that streak to 30 games.
Now that Kentucky finally has ended its history of frustration against Tennessee, the Wildcats want to start a streak of their own.
“It’s a game that has been brought back to life, going back and forth now, so we’re just trying to keep it in our side,” Kentucky defensive tackle Tristian Johnson said.
The upset didn’t provide much momentum for Kentucky (2-9, 0-7 SEC), which has lost its seven conference games this season by an average margin of 26 points. The Wildcats’ struggles resulted in the firing of Joker Phillips, who will close his Kentucky career Saturday by working his second game as a lame-duck coach.
But that result did turn up the heat on Dooley, who left Tennessee with a 15-21 record in three seasons. Dooley declined an opportunity to coach Saturday’s game out of concern that his presence would cause a distraction and affect his players’ focus. Jim Chaney, who had worked from the press box as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator in the first 11 games of the season, will head to the sidelines Saturday as the Vols’ interim head coach.
Tennessee (4-7. 0-7) is trying to avoid going winless in SEC competition for the first time in school history. Tennessee already is guaranteed its third consecutive losing season, marking the first time since 1909-11 the Vols will have finished below .500 three straight years. The Vols aren’t going to a bowl in back-to-back seasons for the first time since being left out four consecutive years from 1975-78.
The Vols have a difference of opinion on how much of a role the revenge factor plays this week. Some players said they’re eager to get back at Kentucky.
“That’s one motivation that we’ve had since the beginning of the year,” Tennessee linebacker Jacques Smith said. “We’re definitely going to take it to them this weekend and we’re definitely going to hit them in the mouth.”
Other Vols downplayed the revenge aspect and instead said they wanted to win this game for a senior class that has endured plenty of adversity.
The fifth-year seniors on Tennessee’s roster arrived on campus for Phillip Fulmer’s final season as coach, experienced Lane Kiffin’s one-year tenure and now are ending their careers with an interim coach following Dooley’s exit.
“Oh, man, it’s been a rocky road,” Tennessee fifth-year senior cornerback Prentiss Waggner said. “I remember coming in here under coach Fulmer, when I thought of Tennessee, I thought of a place that’s (an example) of consistency. When I came here in 2008, I think Tennessee had just come off an SEC championship (game) against LSU. I was stoked about coming here, but I don’t regret anything. I made brothers here. I made a lot of friends I’m going to have for a lifetime.”
While the Vols want to make sure their seniors end their careers with victories, Kentucky is eager to send its coach out as a winner.
The Wildcats say they appreciated the fact that Phillips remained with the team even after being fired. Kentucky responded last week with a 34-3 rout of Football Championship Subdivision program Samford in the Wildcats’ first game since Phillips’ dismissal. They want him to cap his Kentucky career with a second straight victory.
“It means a lot for Coach Joker to come back and show us how much he cares about us,” Kentucky tailback Raymond Sanders said. “He always preaches don’t quit and don’t give up. He showed that, he gave us an example by not quitting on us and continuing to come out there and to coach us and push us to become better players and people. It means a lot, and that’s why we want to go out there and try to give him our all.”comments powered by Disqus