KNOXVILLE – Officially, there’s not much on the line when Tennessee (4-6, 1-6 SEC) travels to Kentucky on Saturday afternoon for the season finale.
Tennessee’s bowl chances were wiped away Saturday after a heartbreaking loss to in-state rival Vanderbilt. Kentucky (2-9, 0-7) has long known that it will be staying home for the postseason as well.
Keeping its recent 26-game winning streak in the series alive used to be motivation for UT, but even that disappeared when the Wildcats finally broke through in 2011.
Still, coach Butch Jones isn’t concerned about his team finding motivation in a matchup of the two teams at the bottom of the SEC East standings.
“If you are a competitor, it is another opportunity to compete,” he said at his final weekly press conference of the season on Monday afternoon. “We always talk about competitive character in our football program. So that is first and foremost. You are representing Tennessee. It is another opportunity.
“For the younger players it is another opportunity to put their football identity and their football resume on film as we continue to build this football program and move forward. It is the last opportunity for our seniors of ever representing Tennessee. So there are a lot of things at stake."
Some of what’s at stake are the types of numbers everybody in the football program would like to avoid. The loser of this game will finish last in the SEC East. It would be just the second time (2011) that the Vols would be in that position since the conference split into two divisions in the early 1990s.
There’s also a piece of Tennessee history – not the good kind – that’s on the line. A Tennessee team has never lost eight games in one season. The Vols were on the brink of that last year, but responded with a win under interim coach Jim Chaney to get win No. 5 against Kentucky in Knoxville to close out the season.
“That means a lot,” said senior offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James, who is expected to break the all-time record for number of starts for an offensive lineman at UT on Saturday. “I already had a lot of wrong in this career, I don’t want to be that low – to be that team. We just want to be 1-0 this week.”
James and fellow senior Michael Palardy both said that starting a new winning streak for this program is important. Neither will be around to continue it after Saturday. But they view themselves as the foundation for what they hope will be a new era of success under Jones.
So while they can’t do much to salvage 2013, they hope to launch the younger players into a more successful future.
“I think all of the adversity that we've gone through in the past four years has made us not only better players but better men as well, so we can pass that on to the younger guys and show them, `You're going to hit adversity, you're going to hit bumps in the road, but it's how you overcome that adversity that makes you who you are not only as a man but as a player as well,'” said Palardy.
“We've got to maintain that confidence this week in our preparation so we can go out on top and go in to Kentucky in Lexington and win."
"This upcoming week is big,” James added. “We need to get a win to go into the offseason. It helps with momentum. My sophomore year (2011), we lost to Kentucky. That offseason compared to last year when we beat Kentucky makes a big difference. A victory helps get good things going into the offseason."
Dobbs remains the QB: A rough game for QB Joshua Dobbs hasn't changed his status as the Vols' starter. The freshman completed just 11 of 19 passes for 53 yards and threw two interceptions in Tennessee's loss to the Commodores.
"Joshua Dobbs will be our starting quarterback," Jones confirmed. " I think Josh has continued to progress. I thought Saturday he showed his age a little bit. He rushed his progressions. He had done a great job of going from A to B to C or 1 to 2 to 3. Everything was kind of happening very fast for him.
"So I thought he show a little bit of his age Saturday night. But again, Josh has already been in and that is the maturation phase of a young quarterback playing."
North injury update: True freshman receiver Marquez North, who missed the rest of the Vandy game after sustaining an ankle injury on the first drive, hasn’t been ruled out for this week.
"Progressing,” Jones said. “We'll know more a little bit later today. He's day to day and I'll know more as the week progresses. Right now, he's listed as day to day."
North leads the team with 496 receiving yards on the season.
Sanders out for Kentucky: Kentucky RB Raymond Sanders has been suspended for Saturday’s game against Tennessee for a violation of team rules, coach Mark Stoops confirmed on Monday.
Sanders, a senior, leads the Wildcats with 464 yards of rushing this year. He’s split carries with freshman Jojo Kemp this season. Kemp, who has run for 460 yards, should carry a heavier load on Saturday with Knoxville native Dyshawn Mobley backing him up.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga