There were so, SO many reasons to hate Tennessee, if you’re a Kentucky fan.  That blasted color… the stupid song they’re always playing (truth be told, it’s actually a great song. It just represents failure by Kentucky all too often)… and of course, the losing streak.

A “rivalry” had become an exercise in bitter futility for two and a half decades until Joker Phillips, starting a wide receiver at quarterback, ended the suffering back in 2011.  UT fans had a lot of reasons to hate then-coach Derek Dooley.  That game put a Big Blue bow on them.

Stephen Johnson dives into the end zone for the game-winning TD in 2017 against Tennessee (Photo by Brandon Turner)

Thanks to Mark Stoops, it’s a rivalry again. His teams have beaten the Volunteers twice in the past four seasons, including last year’s game that went from nail-biter to beat-down, in Knoxville no less.  And early in this season, it appeared the Wildcats would be heavy favorites to make it two straight over the Volunteers for the first time since 1976-77.

At one point, Tennessee lost two of three, blowing a game to a legit Pittsburgh team and then stumbling to Florida, back when the 11th-ranked Gators were still relevant. At the same time, Kentucky was racing off to five straight victories and soon would make it six.

But in the SEC, it’s “What have you done for me lately?” and that’s the chief cause for concern, going into the 117th edition of Blue vs. Orange.  

The Wildcats took their licking at Georgia; it was a true visit to the UGA woodshed but still had some bright spots for the Cats, including a solid performance by quarterback Will Levis.

Then it was a different pack of Bulldogs that took down Kentucky, the ones in Starkville. Kentucky’s loss at Mississippi State evoked memories of another bitterly disappointing performance by a Stoops-coached team. It was a flashback to 2018, when the Cats showed up at Neyland Stadium and threw their helmets on the field, expecting Tennessee to roll over.  UT 24, UK 7.

So Kentucky enters the latest matchup on a two-game losing skid but so does Tennessee. Here’s the danger: The Vols’ streak looks a heck of a lot better.

Tennessee lost two weeks ago to that high-octane Mississippi team.  If you haven’t seen the highlights, you’ve definitely seen the low-lights, when the Big Orange faithful pelted the Neyland turf with a golf ball, trash and bottles – most designed for H2o, one for mustard. It happened near the end of an otherwise highly entertaining, competitive game that might have had a happy ending for Tennessee, had QB Hendon Hooker not been injured in the closing seconds.

Even more impressive was last week’s loss to Alabama. Tennessee actually led 14-7 after one quarter and trailed just 24-17 going into the fourth.  That’s when the Tide scored 28 points, with 21 coming in a six-minute span.

Tennessee has found the end zone a lot this season. Photo by Brandon Turner

Hooker is healthy again and played well vs Bama, although he threw a key interception late in the game.  UK’s Levis can relate, coming off his worst game as a Wildcat, one that saw him throw to the wrong jerseys three different times – twice within the shadow of the end zone. 

Before their two losses, the Vols were scoring at an electric pace, averaging nearly 45 points in their first six games. Of course, some of their best scoring efforts came against winless Tennessee Tech and two SEC teams known for their defensive inabilities, Missouri and South Carolina.

Still, the Volunteers have transformed themselves with their jailbreak offense.  If the Wildcats can find a way to shut it down, they could ring up their third win over the Orange during the Stoops era.

And that would make for a much healthier rivalry.

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