This Saturday, Tennessee football will face off against Kentucky for the 116th time in the long history of the rivalry. This will the Vols’ opportunity to win their third straight matchup with the Wildcats, a rivalry that has been heavily slanted towards the Big Orange.
Since the first meeting in Knoxville on October 21, 1893, Tennessee has won an impressive 81 games besting Kentucky’s 25 victories, with nine games having been left in a tie. The series has become even more lopsided in recent years, as the Wildcats have only won twice since 1984, and they have been unable to defeat the Vols in Knoxville since that 1984 win.
In years past, the two teams would be battling for the Beer Barrel, an actual beer barrel painted orange for Tennessee, blue for Kentucky and white in the middle with each game’s score. The barrel was retired in 1999 due to an accident involving Wildcat players, but the Vols still have the barrel as evidenced by a tweet from assistant coach Brian Niedermeyer after year’s win.
This is also just the sixth meeting between the two programs in the month of October, with every other matchup falling in the month of November and often during the last week of the regular season in many years.
The teams have had reversed fortunes so far this year, as Tennessee sits at 2-1 while Kentucky has a record of 1-2. The Vols opened the season with victories over South Carolina and Missouri, before falling to Georgia in a game that featured a first controlled by Tennessee and a second half where the Bulldogs dominated the Vols to get the victory. However, Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt is focusing on this weekend.
“When you look at this game this week,” Pruitt said. “it’s a great opportunity for us playing against a really good football team. When you look at Kentucky, to me I’m looking at them over the last four or five years, they continue to get better every year. They’re a physical team. They’re very well coached. They play together. They’ve played in a lot of close games and won a lot of close games over the last couple of years. It’ll be a tremendous challenge for us to find out a little bit about who we are. We’ve had a couple of good days of practice here. It’s going to be a fast turnaround with an early kick on Saturday and we’re looking forward to it. We need to play a clean game. We need to play together, and we need to bring a lot of fight and perseverance with us because it’ll be one of those games.”
The Wildcats started the season with back-to-back losses to Auburn and Ole Miss, before breaking through with a victory over Mississippi State last week. There were crucial errors against the Rebels and also mistakes against the Bulldogs, but Kentucky coach Mark Stoops is not taking anything to chance spending too much time reminiscing about what could have been.
“We need to put it all together,” Stoops said “To go play a great game against Tennessee. This is an important game for us and our fan base and another league (game) and our division. You look at it and again, as Coach (Mike) Leach said after the game and I said it a week ago, it is going to be a grind. You just hit the reset button each week. You look at it and feel disappointed letting a game slip away here or there, but it is going to be a tough grind. There are only six teams in our league that have a better record than us and eight teams that have the same or worse. So, it is NFL parity this year in the SEC and it is going to be a challenge each and every week and looking forward to this opportunity with Tennessee.”
So, while there will not be any trophies on the line this weekend, there is a lot of pride at stake. And crucially, another possible win in a very touch conference up for grabs in this matchup, the 116th clash between Big Orange and Big Blue. It’s time for Vols versus Wildcats.