For Tennessee, the situation is simple: Win its regular season finale, earn a spot in the conference championship game.
The 19th-ranked Volunteers look to beat Kentucky for the 23rd straight time Saturday and clinch the SEC Eastern Division, which would put them back in the league title game for the first time in three years.
Tennessee (8-3, 5-2) is a half-game back of East-leading Georgia, while LSU has won the West to earn a berth in the SEC championship game in Atlanta on Dec. 1.
While the Vols are in second place, they defeated the Bulldogs 35-14 on Oct. 6 to grab the tiebreaker over Georgia, which has finished conference play. Tennessee has not played in the conference title game since losing to Auburn 38-28 in 2004.
It appeared the Vols’ title hopes would be dashed last Saturday as they trailed Vanderbilt 24-9 in the fourth quarter, but Tennessee managed to rally and win 25-24. A 33-yard field goal by Daniel Lincoln with 2:46 left capped Tennessee’s second-largest fourth-quarter comeback in history, and the Commodores missed a potential winning 49-yard field goal with 33 seconds remaining.
“A lesser team would have bagged it, possibly,” Vols coach Phillip Fulmer said.
Georgia beat Kentucky 24-13 earlier in the day, and the Bulldogs would have won the SEC East if the Vols’ comeback fell short.
The Wildcats (7-4, 3-4) find themselves forced to play the role of spoiler Saturday.
“It’s significant going into the last week of Kentucky football that we can determine who the SEC East champion will be,” Brooks said.
The Wildcats are also trying to upgrade their bowl position, and beating a Tennessee team they haven’t defeated since Nov. 24, 1984 would help.
The Vols’ 70 victories over Kentucky is their highest total against any school, and their 22-game winning streak in the series is the nation’s longest active run over an opponent in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
“It’s a rivalry, but when you’ve lost that many games, the rivalry kind of dies out,” Kentucky linebacker Braxton Kelley said. “It’s just not cool, just not fun to be known as the team that has lost to a team 22 straight times.”
Last season, Tennessee beat the Wildcats 17-12 at Neyland Stadium, as the Vols’ Erik Ainge was 19-of-33 for 240 yards and a touchdown.
Ainge, third in the SEC in yards (2,511) and touchdowns (20), threw for 245 yards and three TDs in last week’s win. The senior was 12-of-15 for 107 yards and two scores in the fourth quarter as the Vols outgained the Commodores 119-25 in that period.
“We expect to win every game we play, to be honest with you. Now we have to go on the road and play well,” Fulmer said.
The Vols, 1-3 away from Neyland Stadium, have benefited from a favorable schedule that has kept them off the road for more than a month. Tennessee has won four straight since its last road game, a 41-17 loss to Alabama on Oct. 20.
While the Vols haven’t had much success on the road this year, they’ve won 12 consecutive games at Kentucky since a 21-10 loss Nov. 21, 1981.
In its last trip to Commonwealth Stadium on Nov. 26, 2005, Tennessee won 27-8 behind 221 yards and two touchdowns from Ainge.
Kentucky is 5-2 at Lexington this season, but fell to Florida and Mississippi State in its last two home games.
The Wildcats are fourth in the SEC in scoring (35.5 points per game) and offense (427.2 yards per game), but had season lows in points and yards (297) on Saturday. Kentucky was ranked 22nd before falling out of the Top 25 this week.
Quarterback Andre Woodson is first in the conference in yards (2,921) and touchdowns (30), and threw for 268 yards, one TD and one interception in the Georgia loss. In his last three games, Woodson has thrown for 720 yards, four TDs and four picks, with Kentucky losing two of those contests.
Last season against Tennessee, he had threw for 282 yards and one touchdown.