Nov. 24, 2006
Tennessee has completely dominated Kentucky in recent years, but the Wildcats are feeling good about their chances of reversing those fortunes this season.
Second place in the SEC East Division is on the line Saturday when the 19th-ranked Volunteers (8-3, 4-3) host the Wildcats (7-4, 4-3) in the final regular-season game for both teams.
Tennessee has won its last 21 matchups with Kentucky since a 17-12 home loss in 1984. The Vols lead the series 69-23-9, including 36-10-6 in Knoxville.
The Wildcats, however, are already eligible for their first bowl game since 1999. They have their first four-game winning streak since 2002, and have won three straight SEC games for the first time since 1999.
"We're going into this game with as much confidence that we've had since I've been here," said tight end Jacob Tamme, a senior in his third year of eligibility. "We've had a good season, and I think we have a good football team."
Kentucky has not won more than seven games since 1984, when it went 9-3, and has not finished higher than third place since the SEC split into two divisions in 1992.
"I realize that we've struggled in the past vs. Tennessee," running back Alfonso Smith said. "I think we have a great chance to go down to Tennessee and make some things happen.
"This is a new age, and we are a new team. We want to win this game for the fans and for the former players."
Tennessee is coming off its first win in three games, 39-10 over Vanderbilt. Quarterback Erik Ainge, who played only the first quarter of the Vols' loss to LSU on Nov. 4 and not at all in a defeat at Arkansas one week later because of a sprained ankle, returned and threw for 266 yards and two touchdowns.
"Look at his numbers all year long," coach Phillip Fulmer said. "If he hadn't gotten injured, he'd have a chance to be the all-conference quarterback. I think he is the all-conference quarterback. We'll see. But he is a really good player."
Tennessee, which improved to 78-9 in November since 1985, ranked near the bottom of the league in offense last season, but is scoring 30.5 points per game this season. Receiver Robert Meachem had seven catches for 95 yards and a touchdown against the Commodores, and needs just 22 more yards to surpass Marcus Nash's 1997 school record of 1,170 receiving yards in a season.
Running back LaMarcus Coker, who missed two games with an injured knee before picking up 51 yards against the Razorbacks, ran for 126 yards and a pair of touchdowns against Vanderbilt. The Vols outgained the Commodores 429-218 and scored on eight of 11 possessions, but also settled for four field goals from James Wilhoit, who picked up a career-high 15 points and became the SEC's active career scoring leader with 316 points.
Tennessee's explosive offense could be a problem for Kentucky, which ranks last in the SEC with 468.7 yards and 30.2 points allowed.
"Obviously, the winner will be in sole possession of second place in the SEC East. So it's a big game for both of us," coach Rich Brooks said. "We have to have it this week. If we have any chance at Tennessee, our defense has to step up."
The Wildcats gave up 501 yards, including 351 on the ground, in Saturday's 42-40 win over Louisiana-Monroe. Kentucky has come from behind in the fourth quarter in the last three games to beat Georgia, Vanderbilt and Louisiana-Monroe.
"I was fearful of a letdown and I think we had a little bit of a letdown," Brooks said. "We need to get our swagger back on defense."
Receiver Keenan Burton caught three touchdown passes, his school-record fourth straight game with multiple receiving scores. He broke the record set by teammate Dicky Lyons Jr. in the season's first three games.
Andre Woodson had three touchdown passes and moved into a tie for third on the Wildcats' all-time list with 27 scoring passes this season.
"The reason I'm maturing is because my quarterback is maturing," Burton said. "When he's maturing, the whole team's maturing."