LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP)—After all Tennessee overcame to get to this point, the lopsided losses, the calls for the coach to be fired, blowing a 17-point lead was no reason to get down.
Now the resilient Volunteers are heading back to Atlanta, SEC East champions after a heart-stopping 52-50 victory over snake-bit Kentucky on Saturday.
Sorry Georgia, but it’s not a good idea to wrest conference title hopes on having the Wildcats knock off their perennial border rivals. Times change, but Tennessee’s dominance of the Wildcats does not.
“I think at one time during the season we were 1-2 and everyone had given us up for dead,” Vols coach Phillip Fulmer said. “We had one of those Sunday night player meetings, where you pound on the podium and tell them what they need to do to be a better football team, and to their credit, they have listened.”
Tennessee’s Antonio Reynolds stuffed quarterback Andre Woodson’s 2-point conversion attempt in the fourth overtime, ending one of the wildest games in the history of this rivalry and capping off the Volunteers’ improbable rally from 1-2 in the SEC.
The Volunteers (9-3, 6-2) earned a shot at LSU in next week’s SEC title game by beating the Wildcats (7-5, 3-5) for the 23rd straight time, the longest active winning streak by one team over another in the major college football.
Tennessee and Georgia finished tied atop the East, but the Volunteers earned the title thanks to their 35-14 win over the Bulldogs on Oct. 6.
“To win that game under such circumstances, we were very fortunate,” said Tennessee’s Erik Ainge, who threw for a career-high 397 yards and seven touchdowns. “We somehow got it done. it wasn’t perfect on either side but we find a way to get it done.”
They got it done by outlasting Woodson and the Wildcats, who wasted several chances to end two decades of misery at the hands of the Volunteers.
Kentucky trailed 31-14 late in the third quarter, but scrambled to tie it on a 20-yard field goal by Lones Seiber at the end of regulation.
The teams traded touchdowns in the first overtime, but the Wildcats seemed to get the break they needed when Sam Maxwell intercepted Ainge at the goal line.
Three straight Kentucky runs put Seiber in range to win it, but his 35-yard attempt was blocked by Dan Williams.
“Coach called it desperation block,” Williams said. “You’ve got to believe you can get it. If you don’t, you lose.”
Woodson matched Ainge throw for throw, passing for 430 yards and six touchdowns, but the Wildcats couldn’t repeat the magic that propelled them to an overtime victory over No. 1 LSU in October.
“It was a great college football game, but the way I look at it, the wrong team ended up winning,” Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said. “The streak lives.”
The teams traded touchdowns in the third overtime, with the Wildcats stuffing Tennessee’s Arian Foster’s 2-point conversion.
A personal foul on the Volunteers following the conversion attempt pushed Tennessee back to the Kentucky 40 instead of the Kentucky 25 at the beginning of the fourth overtime.
No matter. Ainge hit a wide-open Quintin Hancock on the first play to put the Volunteers in front. Ainge then found Austin Rogers for the conversion over the middle.
“Quintin kind of ran the wrong route, but he read it as he was running and I just hit him,” Ainge said.
Kentucky responded with a 2-yard touchdown run by Derrick Locke, but Woodson was stopped at the Tennessee 3 caught in between trying to find a receiver and taking off for the end zone.
The Volunteers seemed out of the SEC East race after being crushed 41-17 at Alabama last month. Earlier in the season, the Vols were pounded 59-20 by Florida.
Getting creamed by Tennessee’s biggest rivals had Vols fans restless and the media speculating if Fulmer could be replaced.
But since the loss to Alabama, Tennessee has now won five straight and will return to the SEC title game for the first time since 2004.
“No one was giving us a chance to win, it was us against the world,” Ainge said. “No one was giving us a shot.”
Kentucky, which was on the fringe of the national championship hunt after upsetting the Tigers, has lost four of its last five.
The Volunteers earned the shot with a gritty but hardly perfect performance against the Wildcats. They dominated the game’s first 45 minutes, hemming in Woodson and controlling the tempo behind Ainge and Foster, who had 216 yards from scrimmage.
Oddly, Kentucky seemed only too eager to try and grind it out with the Volunteers. It wasn’t until they went to the spread formation late in the second half that the rally began.
The Wildcats could have won it in regulation, moving to the Tennessee 1 with less than 30 seconds to go. A run and two passes went nowhere, forcing them to settle for a field goal and overtime.
“We’ve won quite a few games this year this year, coming from behind,” Brooks said. “I was pretty confident as our players were that we were going to do it again after we had tied it up in regulation.”
Rafael Little had 77 yards rushing and caught 11 passes for 108 yards for the Wildcats. Jacob Tamme, Steve Johnson Keenan Burton—who helped usher the Wildcats into the Top 10 earlier in the season—combined for 23 catches, 273 yards and five scores.
The trio is part of a class of 16 Kentucky seniors who had hoped to make their final home game the exclamation point on a two-year period in which the program challenged some of the conference’s elite.
Instead, the regular season ended the same way as most of the 22 before it— with a loss to Tennessee.