Tennessee @ Kentucky 2009: What it Means

Kentucky fans often think of the Tennessee Volunteers and Kentucky Wildcats as rivals, and in many ways, that's true.  Among the northernmost SEC schools, Tennessee and Kentucky have more in common with each other than they do with the rest of the teams in the SEC.  That similarity produces a natural sense of rivalry, along with the fact that both states share a long border and are culturally similar.

But sports rivalries generally require a competitive situation, a case in which both teams win.  Rivalries become "cold" when faced with long stretches of futility, like the current 24 - year stretch in which the 'Cats have not managed a single victory against the Volunteers.  There have been many competitive games in that period -- in fact, if you discount the period between 1992 and 2000, Kentucky has been competitive in almost every game.  Competitive, but losers every time.

Today, UK hopes to begin the revival of what used to be a thriving and acrimonious rivalry back in the 1950's and 1960's.  To do that, this long streak of losses against the Vols must come to an end.  UK doesn't have to dominate Tennessee in order to begin the revival, although a domination would go a long way toward making this a rivalry faster.

To get everyone in the spirit of the game, below you will find Ken and I talking With Will and Joel of Rocky Top Talk about the game earlier this week.  I meant to put this up earlier, but unfortunately, the Cancun Challenge dominated most of our attention this week, and  there are only so many blogging hours in the day.  But excuses aside, here we go:

Be sure to give it a listen, I think you will find it interesting.

More after the jump.

Over at Rocky Top Talk, Will has a terrific article about the futility Kentucky has suffered (as well as some of Tennessee's best moments) over the last 24 years.  These aren't the 48-0 blowouts, but the really competitive games like the 52-50 overtime loss the last time the Vols brought the Big Orange into Commonwealth Stadium.  Here is a taste of some of the memories Will offers up:

2004:  #15 Tennessee 37 - Kentucky 31 (Knoxville)

With freshman Erik Ainge having gone down against Notre Dame two weeks earlier, the Vols found life difficult with Rick Clausen under center:  after losing to the Irish and surviving 38-33 against Vanderbilt, the Vols were pushed to the limit by Kentucky.  The offense put up plenty of numbers - 606 yards on the afternoon - but Clausen's pick six gave Kentucky a 17-7 second quarter lead.  The Cats led 24-22 at halftime, then got a huge score to make it 31-22 going to the fourth quarter.  But the Vols used a trick play, with CJ Fayton passing to Robert Meachem, to set up one fourth quarter score, then went 60 yards in four minutes to finish the job via a Gerald Riggs touchdown run, 12 yards with 12 seconds left.

That was a classic example of a game Kentucky should have won, but the trick play took all the wind out of their sails and they collapsed in the end, instead of coming out victorious.

In a way, today's game represents a validation of the 2009 season.  I don't mean that the rest of the season is meaningless without this win -- to the contrary.  Kentucky has three SEC victories, every one of them on the road, and two against teams that are most often ranked somewhere in the top 25 in the country -- in fact, both Georgia and Auburn have been ranked this year.  Winning on the road in the SEC, particularly against teams of that quality, is a feat usually reserved for the division champion.

But UK has been futile against the SEC in Commonwealth this year, and it's hart to argue that a truly great season can be composed of a 0-for-the-SEC record in your home stadium.  As recent Kentucky teams go, this team is perhaps as good as the 2006 team with a loss today, clearly better than last year, but not as good as 2007.  With a win today, UK would manage eight wins in the regular season for the first time since 1984 (ironically the same year we last defeated the Vols), but it must be said that there were only 11 games in those days, and UK went 8-3.

Even with a loss today, this team will be remembered for all the road victories, breaking a long streak of losses to Auburn, and defeating Georgia between the hedges for the first time since 1977.  This team has accomplished a lot, and contributed a lot to Kentucky history, including the third straight defeat of Louisville.

Another subtext to this game is Tennessee native Randall Cobb, who's legend at Kentucky seems on a trajectory similar to that of Tim Couch.  Couch, of course, was a Kentucky boy and one of the best players ever to put on the Blue and White, but Cobb is from Alcoa High in Alcoa Tennessee, just a few miles from Knoxville.  As everyone knows, Cobb wanted to go to UT, but the Vols ignored him until long after he had accepted an offer from Kentucky.  When Fulmer & Co. finally did offer, Randally Cobb stuck with his commitment and turned down the Volunteers.

If Kentucky does defeat Tennessee in Commonwealth Stadium today, it will likely be in no small part due to Randall Cobb, and he may become one of the most legendary players that Kentucky has produced.  Cobb may be crowding out some other guys, like Derrick Locke and the entire offensive line (which is arguably the best o-line at Kentucky in so many years I can't even remember), but someone will always emerge as the media and fan darling.  Cobb fits that bill to a "T."

So ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation, lets get ready for some FOOTBALL, and hopefully, some history.

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