Could Kentucky Actually Beat the Vols in Football?

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    Photo Credit: Mason Burgin/RTI

    The rivalry between Tennessee and Kentucky has been one of the more back-and-forth rivalries over the past few years.

    In basketball, at least. The Vols and Wildcats have split the season series each of the last two seasons, and Tennessee has won three of the last seven meetings between the two teams after losing six consecutive games to the Wildcats from 2010-13.

    The football rivalry, however, has been anything but back-and-forth. And it’s been that way for a very long time.

    Kentucky has exactly one win against the Vols over the last three decades in football. Tennessee lost 10-7 to Kentucky in the final game of the regular season in 2011 in what would turn out to be one of the defining games of the Derek Dooley era for the Vols. The Vols have defeated the Wildcats by an average score of 43 to 20.8 in the five years since. And before that 2011 victory? The Vols had a 26-game winning streak over Kentucky that dated back to 1985.

    But all that Tennessee-dominated history hasn’t stopped analysts from making this year’s contest between the Vols and Wildcats a trendy upset pick already.

    It all started when the South Point book in Vegas released their opening betting lines for some games for the 2017 college football season and had the Vols’ match-up with Kentucky on October 28th listed as a “pick ’em.” Then not even a week later, Danny Sheridan, a handicapper and sports analyst for USA Today, made the bold prediction that Kentucky would defeat the Vols this season.

    Then last week, another national analyst claimed he believes Kentucky will finish ahead of the Vols in the SEC East this season.

    Cole Cubelic, a sideline analyst for the SEC Network and host of his own daily sports radio show, was asked on Twitter about his thoughts on the SEC East and specifically on Kentucky for the upcoming 2017 season. Cubelic stated he believed the Wildcats would finish in the top three of the East. Another person asked Cubelic which team Kentucky would finish ahead of between Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee, to which Cubelic replied “UT.”

    Then Cubelic went on to say he believes the Wildcats are better at almost every position than the Vols right now before the start of fall camp.

    It’s worth noting that Cubelic quantified his statement by saying he believes Kentucky is better at those positions “as of today.” That doesn’t mean the Wildcats will still be better at those positions once the season begins and the teams take the field. But the fact stands the Cubelic does believe, as of now, that Kentucky has more production at those positions than Tennessee and believes the Wildcats will finish ahead of the Vols in the SEC East this year. Cubelic did not specify if he believes the Wildcats will defeat the Vols this year, only that they’ll finish ahead of them in the East.

    History has shown it’s highly unlikely that Kentucky will defeat Tennessee this year. History doesn’t dictate everything in the present, however, but it’s a useful tool that can help predict what may happen in the future. So what else does the past say about Kentucky and Tennessee in football? Just how likely is it that Cubelic’s statements about Kentucky finishing ahead of the Vols and in the top 3 of the East come true?

    Once again, not very likely.

    Kentucky hasn’t finished ahead of Tennessee in the SEC East since 2011 when the Vols finished in last place in the division and Kentucky finished a spot above them. And that’s the only time since the conference split into divisions in 1992 that Kentucky has finished ahead of the Vols in the East.

    Not only that, but Kentucky has only finished in the top three of the East once since 1992. The Wildcats finished third in 1993 with a 4-4 conference record, finishing behind only Florida and Tennessee. Other than that season, Kentucky has finished fourth or worst in the SEC East every single season since 1992.

    Kentucky does have the advantage this season of drawing a somewhat easier cross-divisional schedule in SEC play. The Vols have to travel to Alabama and host LSU this year while Kentucky goes on the road to Mississippi State and host Ole Miss. The Wildcats do have the easier conference schedule, but they’ve had that advantage in the past and have rarely capitalized on it.

    History says Kentucky won’t beat the Vols this fall or finish ahead of them in the SEC East. But recent history also said the Vols wouldn’t stage a furious comeback to defeat Florida or use a last minute Hail Mary to defeat Georgia in 2016. But both of those happened.

    Can Kentucky beat the Vols? Can the Wildcats finish ahead of Tennessee in the East? Yes, both of those are possible outcomes this season. But both of those would be anomalies given Kentucky’s history against the Vols, and Vol fans certainly aren’t expecting either of those to happen this season either.

    Nathanael Rutherford
    Nathanael Rutherford is the managing editor and social media manager for Rocky Top Insider. Nathanael graduated from the University of Tennessee and cultivated a passion for the Vols while growing up in Knoxville a mere 10 minutes from Neyland Stadium. He's been a part of the RTI team since November of 2015 and has been the editor of RTI since June of 2017. If he's not talking or writing about Tennessee athletics, he's probably talking about Star Wars.