An East Division title and berth in the SEC championship game may be out of reach for Kentucky, but the No. 11 Wildcats still have some rewards awaiting them if they close out the season successfully.
With three games in the regular season and a bowl bid remaining, Kentucky (7-2, 5-2 SEC) is still within range of matching the 1950 Wildcats team coached by Bear Bryant that won a school-record 11 games.
And they will be going for a sixth SEC victory for the second time in school history and first time since the 1977 team went 6-0 in league play when they visit Tennessee on Saturday.
“Like I talked last week, the situation is going to change every week,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “This is a different situation. We’re going on the road. We’re playing Tennessee at Tennessee with our last league game.
“It’s very important to us.”
First-year Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt is aware of the task his Volunteers (4-5, 1-4 SEC) are taking on.
“We’re going to play a really good football team this weekend,” Pruitt said. “I followed coach Stoops at Florida State so I know firsthand what his teams are all about. They’re going to be very well coached and hard-nosed.”
The Vols managed to keep their postseason hopes alive last week with a 14-3 victory over Charlotte, but it was not the dominant performance they were hoping for. They rushed for 60 yards, the fourth time this season they have failed to reach triple digits.
“We didn’t block very well,” Pruitt said. “We basically got whipped at the point of attack. We had some mental errors that we haven’t been having for quite some time.
“We had free guys in the hole. That will get you before you get going. I’d say the health of our running backs is probably like everybody else. It’s November and everybody has bumps and bruises. All of our guys will be ready to play.”
Leading rusher Tim Jordan (414 yards) managed only 18 yards on four carries. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano was 16-of-21 passing but for a so-so 172 yards. The good thing: He hasn’t thrown an interception since the fourth game of the season when he threw two in a loss to Florida.
“He is really good when he is in rhythm,” Stoops said of the Tennessee sophomore. “He’s got some really talented wide receivers. He is playing more confident and experience and getting better. He’s done some good things.”
The Wildcats also had difficulty establishing the run last week in their 34-17 loss to No. 5 Georgia, failing to get to 100 yards for the third time in the last four games. Running back Benny Snell tweaked an ankle in the first quarter but returned and rushed for 73 of the team’s total of 84 yards.
He is expected to be ready for the Vols.
“He’s a tough guy,” Pruitt said. “They do a lot with him, lots of Wildcat, so he can obviously handle what they do. They used him a lot as a freshman, which is the last time I coached against him.
“He’s very physical, but he doesn’t take a lot of one-on-one hits. He runs through the soft shoulder, so it’s tough to get him squared up. We’ll have to do a really good job of gang-tackling him.”
As was the case with Florida earlier in the year, when the Wildcats snapped a 31-game losing streak to the Gators, Kentucky will be trying to end anther skid against the Vols. The Wildcats haven’t won in Knoxville since 1984, losing 16 in a row in Neyland Stadium.
Stoops discounts that as any sort of motivating factor for his team, however.
“I think just beating Tennessee is important to us,” he said. “Whether there’s a streak involved or not, why would that make a difference to our team? They don’t know anything about 34 years ago.
“To be honest with you, they really don’t care.”