KNOXVILLE – Nov. 26, 2011 was still fresh on the minds of some of the coaches and players this week.
That was the day ‘the streak’ ended in Lexington. The Vols fell to Kentucky 10-7 on a cold, windy day last season. It ended a run of 26 consecutive wins over the Wildcats, then the longest continuous winning streak in the nation.
"I wouldn't say it eats at the team, but it is in the back of our head," senior Prentiss Waggner said. "We know with the opponents that we face [this year], we talk about last year a little bit, so to face Kentucky knowing that we lost last year, there is sort of a chip on our shoulders to go out and get a victory."
The Vols were without wide receiver Justin Hunter (ACL) in that game and quarterback Tyler Bray was far from 100 percent as he dealt with an illness and the lingering effects of a broken thumb he sustained in the middle of the season.
But Kentucky was in just as bad of shape. The Wildcats’ top two quarterbacks were out, so they turned to Matt Roark, normally a receiver, to run the offense on less than a week’s notice.
Roark attempted only six passes, but he ran for 124 yards on 24 carries. He became an instant legend in the Bluegrass State. And the Vols sunk to a new low.
"After that game it was crazy," Waggner said. "I think Kentucky did a good job of making the plays, but this year we have to do a good job of winning third downs, getting off the field and keep giving our offense a chance to make plays, because this year we have an explosive offense, and the more we get them the ball, the better."
Avenging that loss is one of the primary motiving factors this season, especially given that the Vols are out of postseason contention. The Wildcats (2-9, 0-7 SEC) have had a forgettable year as well, and head coach Joker Phillips will be coaching his final game on Saturday. Like former Tennessee coach Derek Dooley, Phillips lasted just three years on the job. He was fired Nov. 4 but chose to finish out the season. Dooley opted not to coach against Kentucky, saying he didn't want to create a distraction that could affect the Vols' play.
The Wildcats have used four different quarterbacks – Maxwell Smith, Patrick Towles, Morgan Newton and Jalen Whitlow – this season because of injury and inexperience. Whitlow, a dual-threat true freshman, is expected to play the most against the Vols. Interim Tennessee head coach Jim Chaney sees a Kentucky squad that has the capability to beat Tennessee, even though its results haven’t been there this season.
"They are an SEC football team, so they have SEC talent," Chaney said. "They fly around, they hit you on defense. Offensively there are enough players there to score enough points to beat you. Once again, our focus is completely on Tennessee and getting our mind right to execute and play the way we are capable of playing. That is 100 percent of our concern now."
Last game for Randy Sanders: With the dismissal of Phillips (effective at the end of the season), Kentucky offensive coordinator Randy Sanders will, in all likelihood, coach his last game for the Wildcats as well on Saturday.
There will be a touch of irony for Sanders in that it will come in Knoxville, the place where he played and coached from 1989-2005. After coaching various offensive positions, Sanders was the offensive coordinator for the Vols 1999-2005.
“That obviously has to rank up there,” Sanders said of his memory of beating Tennessee last season. “The way we had to do it, but then the fact that we hadn’t done it in so long. There were a number of years there where I thought, honestly, we probably had a better chance to win than they did (in 2011).”
Phillips assesses Hunter and Patterson: Phillips thinks defending Tennessee wide receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson will be the biggest concern for the Wildcats this week.
He also put his draft analyst cap on and talked about their potential after watching film of them.
“Two really, really, good talented receivers, potential first-round receivers if they stay,” Phillips said. “I'm sure those guys will be listening (to the NFL), but I think those guys have first-round talent in Hunter and Patterson.”
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.