But better to win not playing your best than to play well and lose.
If the SEC gets two teams in the BCS – which it should – then the Vols won't have to worry about Atlanta or Nashville, according to one bowl official. It will be Orlando, Tampa or possibly Dallas.
Could UT fall below the Outback?
``I don't see how that can happen,'' said Outback Bowl official Dick Christian, who has been with the Tampa bowl for 21 years.
Christian said he expects Arkansas to play in the Cotton Bowl if the Hogs lose the SEC title game to Florida.
``Then Auburn or Tennessee will go to the Capital One Bowl and we'll take the other,'' Christian said.
If Arkansas wins the SEC, Florida will play in the Capital One Bowl with Auburn or Tennessee (9-3) going to the Outback Bowl.
Considering Auburn (10-2) hasn't played in Dallas since 1985 and the Cotton Bowl favors taking a West Division team, that would likely put Tennessee in Tampa. However, the Cotton Bowl might want to match UT against Texas.
So, the bowl scenario remains a bit uncertain
What's certain is that Tennessee was fortunate to beat a fired up Kentucky team that was trying to snap a 21-game losing streak to the Vols.
UT coach Phillip Fulmer said he was proud of his team but admitted the Vols almost ``screwed up and let a team beat us that shouldn't beat us.''
No kidding. Kentucky entered the game with the worst defense in the nation. They allowed almost 470 yards per game. They gave up 617 total yards to Vanderbilt, 501 yards to Louisiana-Monroe. Yet, the Vols managed only 17 points and 336 yards, and couldn't crack the 100-yard mark in rushing.
It was Tennessee's worst offensive effort of the season.
``We just didn't seem like we had the energy we usually play with,'' Fulmer said.
No, Tennessee didn't, and it almost proved costly. The Vols jumped to a 10-0 first-quarter lead and appeared disinterested after that. Maybe UT thought Kentucky would wilt. The Cats didn't. Kentucky outscored the Vols 12-0 in the second quarter for a 12-10 halftime lead.
Tennessee couldn't shake Rich Brooks' team. A fumbled kickoff here, a dropped pass there, a bad throw everywhere and poor pass protection led to UT's struggles on offense.
Cutcliffe was clearly flustered, but he said the offensive ineptitude didn't really matter because Tennessee won.
``I don't care if it's 17-12 or 5-0, we got a win, and wins aren't easy to come by in the SEC,'' Cutcliffe said.
Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge, sharp a week ago against Vanderbilt, was off against Kentucky. He hit 19 of 33 passes for 240 yards and one touchdown. He overthrew and underthrew and wasn't always on the same page with his wideouts.
``We won,'' said Ainge, who failed to complete at least 60 percent of his passes for only the second time this season in a full game. ``That's all that matters. Give credit to Kentucky. They took it to us.''
Kentucky drove inside the Tennessee 5-yard line in the final few minutes before failing on a run and three passes, one tipped by linebacker Rico McCoy.
``That was the kind of stop we couldn't get last year,'' defensive coordinator John Chavis said. ``It was the kind of stop that we needed against LSU.''
Chavis felt the stop – and the 12 points allowed – was satisfying, considering some Kentucky players had apparently said that if the team's defense played well, the Wildcats would beat Tennessee. In other words, UK felt it would score on UT.
``We talked to our kids about it,'' Chavis said. ``I'll be honest with you, it was an insult. I usually don't make these kind of comments, but it was an insult to hear if their defense played well enough, they'd win the football game.''
Kentucky had just eight possessions in the game. They scored one touchdown, kicked two field goals, missed a short field goal, punted once and failed on three fourth-down attempts.
On three possessions, Kentucky hogged the ball for at least 13 plays. That didn't sit well with Chavis.
``One of our goals is not to have 10-play drives,'' Chavis said. ``The thing we did good was we were able to get them stopped.''
Meanwhile, UT's offense was stopping itself. Granted, the Vols had just seven possessions, counting the one in which they ran out the clock to end the game. That doesn't give you much time to find a rhythm. Still, the offense wasn't in sync.
Receivers coach Trooper Taylor was asked if it was frustrating to score just 17 points against a horrible defense.
``Not at all,'' Taylor said. ``As long as they have 16 or less, it doesn't bother me one bit. They don't have the same rivals we have. They don't have to turn down their players to go to Kentucky and not come to Tennessee. It's a horse of a different color. For us, we're always going to get somebody's best and that's to be expected when you're at the University of Tennessee.''
So Tennessee escaped with a five-point win over a 19-point underdog.
And Cutcliffe could walk away with a smile. He was on his way to roast marshmallows with daughter Emily.
``I'm not going to coach her,'' Cutcliffe said.
No, Cutcliffe was done coaching for the day. He wasn't real happy with how he had coached earlier in the afternoon. No sense messing up the marshmallows.