LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Who says college football doesn't have
The way Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge looks at it, the
19th-ranked Volunteers have been in the playoffs for weeks.
To Ainge and the rest of the Volunteers (8-3, 5-2 SEC),
Saturday's game against Kentucky (7-4, 3-4) is just another step in
a playoff march that began more than a month ago.
"I don't think this weekend will be any different from a
pressure standpoint because we've been playing 'have to win' the
last month and a half," Ainge said.
It's been that way almost all season for the Volunteers, who
have spent most of the year climbing into - and then deftly backing
out of - hole after hole.
Humbling losses to Florida and the Alabama seemed to have
Tennessee out of the thick of the SEC East race before the leaves
But perhaps it's only fitting that in this topsy-turvy season a
win over the similarly up-and-down Wildcats would land Tennessee in
the SEC title game against No. 1 LSU.
Tennessee would finish tied with Georgia atop the SEC East with
a win, and earn the berth to the title game because of its victory
over the Bulldogs in October.
Coach Phillip Fulmer said the Volunteers aren't the same team
that lost to Alabama 41-17 five weeks ago. Maybe, but the
Volunteers haven't exactly been dominant during their four-game
winning streak. They needed overtime to beat South Carolina last
month and survived a scare by Vanderbilt when they rallied from a
16-point fourth quarter deficit to edge the Commodores.
Tennessee isn't much on style points, but it won't matter if
they can beat the Wildcats for the 23rd straight time. They don't
care how they get to Atlanta for the title game.
"The biggest thing we have done is stick together, believe in
each other and continue to fight," Fulmer said. "We've pushed
ourselves to where we are at this point. There is a group of
hardworking, tough-minded young men on this team that absolutely
wouldn't let go during the season."
It's the kind of resiliency Kentucky will need if it wants to
follow through on its promise to make an impact in the SEC race
The Wildcats have struggled since upsetting LSU on Oct. 13,
losing three of four and tumbling out of the Top 25. A win over the
Volunteers would likely guarantee the Wildcats could pack some
shorts to their bowl game destination, and validate the work of a
senior class that's tried to lift the program from its perennial
spot near the bottom of the conference.
"We feel like we need to win at least one more game than we did
last year," Wildcats linebacker Braxton Kelley said. "We have let
this season slip out of our hands a little. We had a great season
in our grasp, but now we can only settle for a good season, but
that's only if we win this game."
To do it and send Georgia to the title game rather than the
Volunteers, Kentucky will need to rediscover the offensive
firepower that led them to upsets of Louisville and LSU. The
Wildcats averaged 42 points during their first eight games, a
number that's dropped to 18 points in their last three.
Part of the blame lies on a running game that's struggled to get
going. Injuries have been part of the problem, forcing
fourth-stringer Derrick Locke to play a prominent role. While Locke
has played well, he hasn't made opponents pay for focusing on
quarterback Andre Woodson and one of the SEC's most potent passing
"We need balance," Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said.
More importantly, the Wildcats need to believe they can do
something that no Kentucky team - good or bad - has done since
before most of the current Wildcats were born.
The Volunteers have owned the series for years. The Wildcats
would like to make it a rivalry. Ruining Tennessee's shot at a
conference title and a Bowl Championship Series berth would help do
"When you have lost that many games, the rivalry kind of dies
out," Kelley said. "Losing 22 games, with the longest losing
streak in the NCAA right now is not cool. It's not fun to be known
as a team that has lost to another team 22 straight times."
If the Volunteers can make it 23 straight, the disappointments
of the early fall will fade away.
"We had a couple of disappointing losses early where we didn't
play well, some injuries we had to fight though and certainly some
youth in spots, but here we are in the last week of the regular
season playing for the SEC Eastern Division Championship," Fulmer
said. "I think it's a great compliment to the coaches, a great
compliment to the players and their toughness."
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)