For years, no matter how inconsistent Tennessee was thoughout the season, no matter how much adversity they faced, no matter how tough that schedule seemed, there was always Vanderbilt and Kentucky at the end of the rainbow.
Many years the final two games began with Kentucky and ended with Vanderbilt, but that changed in 2002 when Vandy was played the week before the Kentucky game. No matter the order, however, it's almost always been a safe landing place after a long grueling schedule over the season's first two months.
Vanderbilt has beaten Tennessee once ('05) since I've been alive (almost 28 years). I have yet to see Kentucky defeat the Vols.
Somehow though these two always save their best for last. For many years these two games have been Vandy and Kentucky's bowl games. Vanderbilt's only trip to a real bowl since 1982 came last season. Kentucky has had more success in recent years, but it wasn't always that way.
I remember epic games in '97 as Peyton Manning outdueled Tim Couch in Lexington, 59-31. I remember watching that same Peyton Manning-led team follow that up with a 17-10 win against a much weaker Vanderbilt team the following week on Senior Day.
The year before that, '96, Peyton carved up the Wildcats 56-10 before eaking out a 14-7 win over Vanderbilt.
In 1998 we drove to Knoxville in hopes of obtaining a scalped ticket to watch the No. 1 Vols take on Kentucky. After the prices were still $150 per ticket midway through the first half, we decided to listen to John Ward call the game on the radio and we drove back to Chattanooga without seeing a down. The Vols won 59-21.
The next week they carried the SEC sign around Vanderbilt stadium, 41-0 winners on their way to the SEC title game, and eventually the national championship.
In '03 my dad and I drove up to Lexington to watch the Vols play at Commonwealth Stadium. It was classic UT vs. Kentucky as it took a last minute Casey Clausen drive to finally put the Wildcats away 20-7.
I still cringe when I watch Kentucky games on tv and hear the P.A. announcer say "FIRST DOWN KENTUCKY!" We heard those words too many times that day, and it's an inside joke in the Barker family to this day.
Another highly anticipated season in '05 quickly became disastrous. Ranked No. 2 in the preseason, Tennessee would quickly fall flat on their face in the season. Going into the Vanderbilt game on Senior Day the Vols were 4-5 needing two wins to become bowl eligible.
Vanderbilt senior QB, Jay Cutler seemingly willed the 'Dores to the win, shutting the Vols out of the postseason for the first time since 1988 with a 28-24 victory. After so many years of being able to count those final two wins, the door was shut in the Vols face.
Tennessee finished 5-6 that season as they beat Kentucky 27-8 to finish the year.
In '07 all Tennessee had to do to win the SEC East was defeat Vanderbilt and Kentucky to finish the season.
It took a last minute missed field goal by Vandy for the Vols to hold on 25-24 in Knoxville. The Kentucky game ended up being an instant classic as it took four overtimes, a blocked field goal attempt, and a great defensive play for the Vols to overcome the 'Cats 52-50 before stamping their ticket to Atlanta.
Last season was one of the worst in Vol memory, yet Tennessee followed up the devastating Wyoming loss on homecoming, with 20-10 and 28-10 victories over Vandy and Kentucky respectively.
This season has been about as up-and-down as any UT fans have seen.
It started out on a high vs. Western Kentucky; quickly dropped vs. UCLA, Florida, and Auburn; back to high with the 45-19 win over Georgia; then back to the heartbreaking column after 12-10 loss to Alabama; back to another high with two straight wins over South Carolina and Memphis; and now it's back down after the infamous arrests and a blowout in Oxford.
Thank goodness for Vanderbilt.
The Vols are one win away from bowl eligibility and luckily this is about the worst Vanderbilt team we have seen in quite a while.
On one hand that's kind of disappointing. I really respect and admire Vandy head coach Bobby Johnson and I pull for the 'Dores to do well until late November every year.
On the other hand, however, I am relieved that they are so bad, because the Vols need to whip someone. At this point, with the yo-yo season they've had, someone needs to pay dearly. It might as well be Vanderbilt.
I expect nothing short of a 41-9 victory on Saturday to send the 'Dores to 0-8 in the SEC and 2-10 overall.
Kentucky will be a taller order as they are clearly better than Vanderbilt, but we'll worry about that one after taking care of the Commodores.
Lane Kiffin's first season has been cleared for landing. The decent begins Saturday night at 7 p.m. Here's hoping for another in a long line of safe landings.
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