JOE COX: It Really Does Mean More
Kentucky’s 34-17 loss to Georgia last Saturday handed the visiting Bulldogs the SEC East title, but Kentucky’s season still has plenty on the line. The Wildcats have every shot to finish 10-2, end up the season in the Top 10 of the major polls, and play in a CFP Big Six bowl game.
And to beat Tennessee.
There are people whose blood pressure runs a little higher at Bobby Petrino, Rick Pitino, and the team down I-64 from Lexington. There are those who remember Bobby Knight or Tom Crean and Assembly Hall and get fired up about Indiana.
And there are people who have lived in Middlesboro, Ky.
When I moved to Middlesboro, there was an overpass near the Kentucky/Tennessee line which was festooned with a blue “101-40” marking, referencing the butt-whooping delivered by the basketball Wildcats over the Vols in the 1993 SEC Tournament. And nearby, there was an orange “52-0” painted. That would be the football score from 1994.
I was there, in the second row in Neyland Stadium. Not only didn’t Kentucky score, but the Wildcats were so vastly overmatched that the UK band played the first song… for a first down. I heard “Rocky Top” about 13 trillion times that day.
I hate the Osborne brothers. There, I said it.
Kentucky is a six-point favorite in Knoxville this Saturday. Rocky Top that.
If Kentucky football is crawling out from under the curse of Bear Bryant, Tennessee football is still dealing with the curse of Phil Fulmer. Maybe hiring Fulmer as the Vols’ athletic director was an attempt to end the negative run that UT’s formerly daunting program has faced since the Vols ran him off in 2008.
Since that time, Tennessee’s overall record is just one game above .500, and of the 12 SEC teams in the league in 2008, UT is 11th in SEC wins since Fulmer left the job (leading only Vanderbilt).
Jeremy Pruitt bears all the hallmarks of being the kind of wise coaching hire that UT hasn’t made since Fulmer. He has a 4-5 Vols team playing competitively despite a massive lack of depth. But they are a six-point home underdog to Kentucky… who hasn’t won in Knoxville since 1984.
QB Jarrett Guarantano makes the UT offense move. The sophomore has passed for 1,571 yards and nine touchdowns while throwing only two interceptions. He was particularly sharp in the Vols’ 30-24 win at Auburn, which was their first league win since 2016. That said, UT was held to under 200 yards of total offense last week in a brutal 14-3 win over Charlotte.
UT still has plenty of team speed, with running back Ty Chandler and receivers Marquez Callaway and Juaun Jennings. The UT offensive line has struggled, and star Trey Smith is out due to blood clots in his legs.
Defensively, Pruitt’s group is a work in progress. Linebacker Daniel Bituli leads the team in tackles with 57, and defensive lineman Kyle Phillips’ three sacks pace the team. UT has just seven interceptions on the year, with DB Bryce Thompson grabbing three.
The Wildcats were gashed for 331 rushing yards by Georgia in UK’s 34-17 loss. QB Terry Wilson was solid, but the offensive line struggled as Benny Snell was held to just 3.7 yards per carry. Kentucky was outmatched from a talent standpoint, fell behind early, and couldn’t fight back.
The good news is this UT team is light years away from Georgia. Kentucky does need to tighten up its offensive execution. Kentucky hasn’t topped seven first half points since September, a trend that needs to end here.
My guess is that it does. Tennessee’s best shot to beat UK might be by adopting the same game plan. But UT’s line doesn’t have the junkyard dog mentality that Bunchy Stallings, Logan Stenberg, and others have adopted.
For once, Kentucky comes into this game with more to gain than UT. That has to mean something in the big picture.
It may not be a score that ends up getting painted on an underpass in Middlesboro, but the guess here is UK 27, UT 14.
Other SEC Predictions
Florida 28, South Carolina 24
Missouri 38, Vanderbilt 14
Texas A&M 31, Ole Miss 24
Alabama 34, Mississippi State 14
Georgia 42, Auburn 17
LSU 31, Arkansas 14
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written seven books, with the eighth to come in 2019. His most recent, "The Immaculate Inning," was released in February 2018 and can be ordered 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.