Not that Tennessee coach Derek Dooley is likely to mention it if his Volunteers win today at Kentucky, but one thing UT always does is kick the you-know-what out of the Wildcats.
Tennessee (1-6, 5-6) will attempt to beat Kentucky (1-6, 4-7) for the 27th straight time when it visits its home away from home, Commonwealth Stadium, today (12:21 p.m., WCYB). UT will try to seal a second bowl bid in as many years under Dooley while extending the nation’s longest series winning streak.
Indeed, whether Kentucky was fat and happy with Jared Lorenzen, all wrapped up in itself under Hal Mumme or seemingly sitting pretty on Tim Couch, the Volunteers have annually made the basketball school a slam dunk in the autumn.
Kentucky could only make Tennessee restless with natives (Randall Cobb, Randy Sanders), couldn’t buy a break with Claude Bassett and worked overtime for no payoff before running out of gas against its Haslam-backed rival in 2007 and ’09.
Second-year Kentucky coach Joker Phillips was a senior receiver for the Wildcats the last time they beat the Vols.
“In ’84 I never would’ve thought that it would be this long before – without having a win over Tennessee, but it is,” Phillips said during the SEC teleconference Wednesday. “It is what it is, and we try not to talk about it.”
As Kentucky’s luck would have it, the Wildcats are even suffering a down year at the same time as Tennessee. The Volunteers are a 7-point favorite after beating Vanderbilt, a team that made light work of Kentucky in a 38-8 victory two weeks ago.
The Wildcats did hold SEC East winner Georgia to one touchdown last week in a 19-10 loss in Athens, although the Bulldogs were without their top two running backs when talented freshman Isaiah Crowell (ankle) left after two carries.
Kentucky fans also could’ve guessed that talented Tennessee sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray would return from a thumb injury in time to knock the rust off before getting a chance to shine against their Wildcats. Bray was shaky while throwing two interceptions in the 27-21 home win against the Commodores, but the Vols were clearly better with a substandard Bray than a first-rate Justin Worley or Matt Simms.
“He made some mistakes he probably wouldn’t have made when he was in his week-to-week routine,” Dooley said.
Now, it’s Kentucky with questions at quarterback. True freshman Maxwell Smith, who has started the past three games, left late against Georgia with an ailing right shoulder, and was wearing a sling afterward.
Phillips said Smith, who is 84-of-153 passing (54.9 percent) for 819 yards, four TDs and four interceptions, is a game-time decision.
“He’s a young guy who went into a hostile environment and took some shots from ... a pretty physical bunch in Georgia,” Phillips said. “But he’s a tough kid. You learn a lot about your quarterback when he’s lying on his back and doesn’t have to get up, you know. …
“He’s gonna be a good player around here for a long time. We just hope as this week goes on he’s able to get himself back healthy enough to come play for us.”
Junior Morgan Newton, who started the first eight games this season, is expected to play if Smith can’t. Newton (ankle, shoulder) is the healthiest he’s been since leaving the lineup.
Regardless of the quarterback he’ll be dealing with, Dooley seems as unnerved as Phillips by the potential for a streak distraction.
“I know a lot of people are going to want to change the focus away from Kentucky to other things like streaks and bowls and all that,” Dooley said, “but it is so important that our team takes the same approach as they did last week and they take the same approach during the game that they did against Vanderbilt.”
Dooley sees this as a make-or-break game for 2011, but doesn’t foresee it having extensive impact on his program otherwise.
“We have a big challenge and we will see if can live up to it,” he said. “If we can, people will be feeling pretty good. And if we can’t, it will be kind of a disappointing year. That is where we are. …
“Will it impact us in the long term significantly? I don’t think so, because I feel good about all the seeds in building our program the right way. But will it hurt us in the short term? Of course it will; it will hurt a lot from an emotional standpoint, from a little bit of a development standpoint.”
Who knows how much another loss would hurt Kentucky, which must be uncomfortably numbed by now when hearing “Rocky Top” while seeing orange streak to the end zone.