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JOE COX: Everything Different (Including Result) in Kentucky-Tennessee Football Matchup

Back in the initial glory days of TV’s Saturday Night Live, Chevy Chase used to joke about a character named Professor Backwards, who alerted his neighbors with cries of “PLEH! PLEH!” Around a decade and a half later, when certain unnamed columnists were in middle school, rappers Kris Kross popularized a fashion trend of wearing clothes backward. In 2017, perhaps the best evidence that the world has completely flipped upside down is this weekend’s Kentucky-Tennessee football matchup.

Kentucky is 5-2, Tennessee is 3-4. Kentucky’s coach, while not about to sign a lifetime contract, looks fairly secure (more on this later), while Tennessee’s Butch Jones is all but hanging in the wind. Kentucky is favored by around five points in Las Vegas, the first time the Cats have been favored in the series since 2007, and the first time they’ve been favored by that amount in who knows how long.

Even from last season, the script is flipped. Last year, Kentucky’s ground game rushed for 443 yards, nearly a school record. This season, that power running attack has nearly disappeared. Tennessee countered that with a potent offense led by Josh Dobbs, who absolutely ate Kentucky for lunch for four seasons. Dobbs is gone, as is UT’s ability to score 49 points, which they did last year. This year’s UT offense has scored four touchdowns since the beat FCS Indiana State on September 9th.

Perhaps the biggest difference is that Kentucky’s fans would ever be in a negative state of mind about coming into this game with a better record and as a favorite against the Volunteers. The last time this game felt this completely backward was in 2008, when Tennessee ran off longtime coach Phillip Fulmer (pictured) because he had a couple of bad losses. Fulmer, you might need reminded, had won the SEC East title with the Vols in 2007. But in 2008, Fulmer had a couple bad weeks, and Tennessee fans saw no reason their team shouldn’t win SEC titles consistently, and maybe earn some more BCS titles, like the one that Fulmer had won in 1999.

Since Fulmer has been gone, not only hasn’t Tennessee won another national title or an SEC title, they haven’t even won the division. Many cracked on Fulmer for struggling with Florida. The Vols have gone 1-8 in that series since replacing him, despite the Gators having their own struggles. As Fulmer could have attested from his early salad days following the underachieving Johnny Majors Era, it’s a hard thing to improve a college football program in the SEC. But it’s easy to tear down.

Ask Vol fans who remember one year of Lane Kiffin, who embarrassed the university and the team, and went 7-6. Ask ones who can tell you about Derek Dooley, who still would seem unlikely to coach his way out of a wet paper sack. Ask them about Jones, who has owned Kentucky, but has done little else right in his time in Knoxville.

Meanwhile, UK coach Mark Stoops has gone 12-6 in his last 18 games at Kentucky. That included an upset of No. 11 Louisville as a 27 point underdog, the program’s first come-from-behind game-winning last-play field goal last season against Mississippi State, and two SEC road wins as an underdog. But Stoops and the Cats got waxed last weekend in Starkville, so a handful of not-overly-bright Big Blue buzzards are circling. The last Kentucky coach to amass a 12-6 mark in 18 games—ANY 18 games—was Rich Brooks during the team’s 2006 and 2007 seasons. Success doesn’t grow on trees, especially in the SEC, and the coaching carousel often doesn’t work out as well as some think. Speaking of the coaching carousel…

Who They Are

Butch Jones looks like a virtual lock to be fired, as he is 33-25 in his five seasons in Knoxville. Tennessee is 3-4 in large part because they are a bad offensive football team. They have not scored an offensive touchdown in the last seven halves they played, dating back to the first half of their September 23rd game against UMass. How bad? Last in the SEC in scoring, last in total offense, last in passing efficiency. The highlight was that the Vols are 11th in rushing… but running back John Kelly has been suspended for the UK game. Freshman QB Jarrett Guarantano will hope for some big plays in the passing game, but that hasn’t happened yet.

Defensively, UT was assumed to be better than they were last season, when they were gashed for 219 yards per game on the ground. The Vols are 10th in the SEC in both scoring defense and yardage allowed. They’re giving up 247 yards per game on the ground this year, and while having played Georgia and Alabama helped to inflate those totals, this isn’t a great defensive team.

Tennessee is 6 of 10 on field goals this season. They are good in kick and punt returns, and have punted the ball well. There is little in this Tennessee team to suggest an outcome like so many seasons past, when the Vols dominated this series (for instance, 50-16 in 2014 or 52-21 in 2015).

Where Kentucky Is

Last Saturday was the first non-competitive game UK has played all season—and the first since week two of 2016, when Florida crushed the Cats in Gainesville by the same 45-7 score that ended last week’s game. Kentucky did not handle adversity well, giving up a crucial late first-half touchdown (which seems to happen almost weekly), and then folding up their tents almost completely in the second half.

If Tennessee lands a quick punch on Saturday, it’s pivotal that Kentucky not respond poorly. In an unusual position against the Vols, this week’s question might not be how will Kentucky handle adversity, but how will they handle success? Kentucky has struggled to put anybody away in 2017, and Tennessee could either be the antidote to that issue or a case study on how to overcome a wealth of difficult circumstances.

Everything has changed. Why wouldn’t the result change as well?

Kentucky 27, Tennessee 16

Other SEC Predictions

Whose else is in action this weekend? Here are my SEC picks.

Georgia 31, Florida 10

Ole Miss 31, Arkansas 24

South Carolina 28, Vanderbilt 13

Missouri 42, UConn 24

Texas A&M 28, Mississippi State 27

Joe Cox is contributing editor for Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written five books. His most recent, Almost Perfect (a study of baseball pitchers’ near-miss attempts at perfect games) is available on Amazon or at many local bookstores. Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at

Photo by Jamie H. Vaught, Magazine

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