Beating Kentucky is supposed to be a given. After all, the Vols have won 28 of the last 29 meetings. Avoiding eight-loss records is supposed to be a given, too. It hadn't happened in the first 116 seasons of Tennessee football. To the monumental relief of Team 117, it won't happen this year, either.
For all of the 2013 Vols' shortcomings, they deserve kudos in one area. It would've been easy to mail it in against Kentucky, especially after the heartbreaking loss they suffered against Vanderbilt one week earlier. To their credit, the Big Orange didn't quit. I can't say the same for the 2011 team that disgraced itself and humiliated its fan base by half-heartedly going through the motions at Lexington two years ago.
You can argue that a 5-7 record isn't a whole lot better than 4-8 but I think beating Kentucky on Saturday night was significant for a number of reasons:
First, as noted above, you avoid the first eight-loss season in program history.
Second, you keep 2013 from being the first season since 1964 to feature losses to both Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
Third, you avoid ending the 2013 season on a five-game losing streak. If you think that wouldn't be mentioned on Knoxville-area talk radio every day until the 2014 opener, think again. It would be mentioned to Tennessee's 2014 commitments on a regular basis, as well … by rival recruiters. Moreover, how does Butch Jones convince uncommitted prospects that things are getting better on The Hill if the Vols are coming off the losingest season in program history?
Bottom line: Team 117 is history. Team 118 is walking from the on-deck circle to the batter's box. Based on Jones' successes on the recruiting trail, 2014 should be a lot more fun than 2013.
Where the game was won
Tennessee did what the superior team is supposed to do: It took control of the game from the outset and never let the opponent or its crowd get cranked up. A 60-yard TD run by Rajion Neal made it 7-0. A 42-yard TD pass to Jason Croom made it 14-0 and a 40-yard Josh Dobbs keeper made it 20-0. Kentucky was reeling at this point and it never fully recovered.
The big picture
Missing a bowl bid may slow the development of Tennessee's freshmen and sophomores (who could've benefited from two weeks of bowl preparation) but Vol coaches can use that time to nail down what projects to be one of the best signing classes in program history. Frankly, I suspect this signing class is more vital to Tennessee's future than the guys already on the roster.
Players of the game
Offense: Rajion Neal
The senior running back carried 20 times for 134 yards in his final game as a Vol. He finishes the season with 1,124 yards and finishes his career with 2,163 yards, slipping past Aaron Hayden (2,061) and Charlie Garner (2,091) into 12th place on Tennessee's all-time rushing list.
Defense: Corey Miller
The senior defensive end recorded 4½ sacks, breaking the single-game school record of 4 set by some guy named Reggie White versus The Citadel in 1983. Miller's final sack forced a fumble on Kentucky's last possession and snuffed out any faint comeback hopes the Wildcats might have been entertaining.
National Signing Day. If Tennessee is to be significantly better in 2014 the Vols need to hang onto their top-five recruiting class between now and February.