Kentucky is not an opponent to be taken lightly. Tennessee has learned as much in recent years.
Tennessee has owned the series against the Wildcats, holding a 82-26-9 record all-time, beating them 26 consecutive times from 1985 to 2010, but this is not the Kentucky team of the past. The Cats have held serve, for the most part, winning two of the last five games against Tennessee.
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops has brought a new sense of excitement to a program that had none before. The Wildcats have gone a combined 38-19 the past 4 ½ seasons… not bad for a basketball school.
Tennessee tight end Jacob Warren acknowledges the history of the rivalry, and the new-found challenge Kentucky poses for the Volunteers.
“That’s a game that we feel like we should be able to handle every year and they always come in with a really good team and it ends up being a great game,” Warren said. “So I think this year is a similar thing. And yeah, you look at their roster and they’re a great team.”
It seems that Stoops’ kryptonite has been Tennessee. Despite the uptick in the commonwealth, the coach is 2-8 against the Volunteers.
Tennessee offensive lineman Cooper Mays has taken notice of the success Kentucky has been having.
“Very special what they’ve been able to do,” Mays said. “You know, they went down early in the season when Florida was really highly ranked and went down into a hostile environment and pulled a big win out… They’ve got a really good team going right now.”
Uniquely, Stoops has built his program on development. Unlike their SEC counterparts, Kentucky does not make headlines gaining five-star prospects.
For example, Will Levis, Kentucky’s quarterback, was a three-star prospect out of high school. Stoops plucked the quarterback out of the transfer portal.
Levis went from not playing at Penn State, to widely being considered one of the best quarterback prospects in the upcoming NFL draft.
Kentucky recruits heavily in-state and develops athletes who are often overlooked by bigger SEC schools. For Warren, a three-star prospect out of high school, that resonates with him.
“You get a program like (Kentucky) where they’re truly invested in developing guys,” Warren said. “I was a three star, right? I wasn’t this huge recruit… They take the time to just be honest with themselves and develop and get their opportunities when it comes. I guess I’m kind of telling my story in a way. You get your opportunity when it comes and you learn how to adjust and you learn what it takes to be successful.
“You stick to it. You grind it out and you try to just trust the program, trust the process, and at the end of it, you have the result of a player that has really worked himself into a pretty good role and plays good ball… So it’s kind of obvious when you watch it on film that they care and that they truly have done it for themselves and for their team as well.”
Stoops has upset a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback before, despite not picking up many high-ranking prospects. Kentucky managed to upset Heisman quarterback Lamar Jackson and Louisville in 2016.
As Stoops tries to lift Kentucky football to the next level in the SEC, they will have to jump the hurdle of Tennessee. Kentucky has only won three games in Neyland Stadium in the past 58 years, and Stoops owns one of the three.
On Saturday night, Stoops looks to conquer the beast, in a hostile environment, that has become of this far better than any Tennessee fan dreamed before the season.
“They do really well with what they’ve got,” Mays said. They’ve got a really good staff up there. They’ve been kind of cemented there for a while, really good coaches and really good players for sure.”