For nearly 75 years, the winner of Tennessee and Kentucky’s football border rivalry took home a beer barrel painted the colors of both schools.
For most of that period, the barrel resided in Knoxville because the Vols largely dominated the rivalry.
The long-standing tradition met its end just before the 1999 matchup due in part to the fatal vehicle crash that involved alcohol and two Kentucky football players.
The barrel hasn’t been involved in this game in over 20 years now, and most players on either team have probably never heard of it.
Tennessee redshirt senior wide receiver Jauan Jennings definitely hasn’t.
“I might be too young for that,” Jennings said when asked about the old trophy. “I know what a beer barrel is. But I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Jennings can’t really be blamed for that, but what he does know is that the Vols (4-5, 2-3 SEC) are just two wins away from bowl eligibility for the first time in three seasons and they’re facing a Kentucky team (4-4, 2-4 SEC) in a similar situation.
A win for either team won’t get them to the magic number, but it’ll set them up nicely to do it in either of their two remaining games afterward.
“This is college football,” Jennings said. “As a team, we focus on the next game, and that happens to be Kentucky. Saturday’s going to come up real quick and we can’t wait to go out there and execute and show the world what Tennessee is capable of.”
A season ago, Tennessee showed what they were capable of. They controlled every facet of the game against a heavily favored and ranked No. 12 Kentucky team at Neyland Stadium in a 24-7 win.
The thought at the time was that, that win put the Vols well on their way to making the postseason, but a 1-2 finish dropped them to 5-7 overall.
After a solid past couple of weeks that saw Tennessee hang with No. 2 Alabama, rout South Carolina and beat UAB in convincing fashion, the Vols are looking to avoid a repeat of last season’s three-game finish.
A win against the Wildcats wouldn’t guarantee wins over Missouri and Vanderbilt in the final two weeks of the regular season, but it would all but establish the fact that Tennessee is improving under Jeremy Pruitt after an abysmal start to the season.
To do that, the Vols will be tasked with slowing down Kentucky wide receiver-turned-quarterback Lynn Bowden Jr., who has lead the Wildcats to wins over Arkansas and Missouri while also leading in passing, rushing and receiving yards this season.
“We work on it in practice, we go against our guys,” Pruitt said when asked how Tennessee’s defense has prepared for Bowden. “Going against Jauan (Jennings), or Tim (Jordan) or Ty (Chandler) or Eric (Gray) playing quarterback, we work it.”
Pruitt has made it clear that he isn’t deceived by the stats or the perception that Bowden doesn’t pose a threat throwing the ball.
In each of Kentucky’s last two games against Georgia and Missouri, the offense struggled while battling the elements in a downpour.
According to Pruitt, Bowden can do more than just use his legs.
“I believe that their quarterback can throw the football,” Pruitt said. “You look at some of the throws he’s made and he’s pretty good. Two of the games that he’s played in it was raining like crazy. It’s not like he’s a one-dimensional guy.”
There is a possibility that Kentucky will feature another quarterback in addition to Bowden in Troy transfer Sawyer Smith. Smith originally replaced starter Terry Wilson earlier in the season after Wilson suffered a season-ending injury in week two. Smith struggled with injuries himself before the emergence of Bowden three games ago.
On the other side, Tennessee could find themselves in a similar situation for the fourth-straight week.
After back-to-back concussions against Mississippi State and Alabama, true freshman quarterback Brian Maurer has been sidelined for the last two games, forcing the Vols’ coaching staff to rotate redshirt junior Jarrett Guarantano and redshirt freshman JT Shrout.
All three quarterbacks could get snaps in Lexington.
“I think what messes up the rhythm of the offense is when you don’t block up front, when you don’t hit open receivers, when you don’t catch the ball and when you turn it over,” Pruitt said. “I don’t think who plays (quarterback) has anything to do with the rhythm.“The way we practice with multiple guys taking reps with each group, that shouldn’t be an issue.”
In a game that will likely be decided by defense, the success of the quarterbacks-or lack thereof-could be the difference in a high-stakes rivalry game that might decide the season of both teams.
The Vols and Wildcats kickoff at Kroger Field at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday. The game can be seen on the SEC Network.