Historically, Tennessee has been a very good road team under Phillip Fulmer. This year, however, the Vols have gone from Road Warriors to Road Kill, suffering lopsided losses at Cal (45-31), at Florida (59-20) and at Alabama (41-17). The lone road win was at Mississippi State (33-21).
Saturday's game will be Tennessee's first road test since the loss at Tuscaloosa on Oct. 20, so the coaches are hoping their troops have grown up some during the interim.
"The maturing process has been a help to us," Fulmer said. "Some of it is normal maturity. Some of it is more experience. Some of it is confidence, a better understanding of schemes and what's expected.
"We have been a very good road team in the past … had some big wins on the road. We'll handle it maturely."
Offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe thinks so, too. With a berth in the SEC Championship Game at stake, he thinks the Vols will play through the noise and hostility they encounter in Lexington.
"I don't think the road has been the problem or the challenge in not playing well a couple of times (at Florida and Bama)," Cutcliffe said. "This team is certainly much more mature than it was. This is the twelfth game, and they know exactly what's on the line."
Because the stakes are high, Tennessee's players could be a bit uptight this week. If so, that could be an even bigger problem than playing on the road. Still, Cutcliffe isn't expecting stress to be a problem for the Vols, even with a berth in the title game on the line.
"I'm sure they're excited about it," he said. "I want them to go in, enjoy it, have fun, enjoy the position they've put themselves in and play the best they can possibly play."
Although Tennessee has won the last 12 meetings at Commonwealth Stadium, many of those victories were by slim margins. A visit from the Vols usually brings out the best in Kentucky's players and fans.
Odds are, the crowd will be even noisier than usual this Saturday. Big Blue fans have embraced their team since it posted a surprising 8-5 record in 2006. They showed up in record numbers for the Wildcats' Music City Bowl defeat of Clemson last December and have continued to provide rabid support in 2007. How animated and vocal the fans might be on Saturday is the least of Fulmer's concerns, however.
"They don't make any tackles. They don't make any blocks," the head man said. "You've got to handle the noise and the ebbs and flows of the football game."
That may be true but the Vols have done a lot better handling those ebbs and flows at Neyland Stadium than they have at opposing fields this fall. Tennessee came unraveled at Florida, allowing the Gators to score the game's final 31 points and turn a 28-20 lead into a 59-20 beatdown.
"The Florida game, in my mind, everything that can go wrong DID go wrong," defensive coordinator John Chavis recalled. "Those kinds of things occur. We've been fortunate that we've been able to play a little bit better at home. We were a younger football team when we went on the road, and we played some awfully good football teams."
The loss to Alabama at Tuscaloosa was mostly a case of a veteran quarterback (John Parker Wilson) dissecting a youthful Vol secondary.
"We ran into a buzz saw down there," Chavis said. "They were hot, couldn't miss. They did a great job. They were ready for us. But we played better in the second half, and I think we grew up some in the Alabama game."
Statistically, there is no place like home. The Vols have outscored their seven home opponents by an average of 38.1 to 18.3 per game. Conversely, they have been outscored by their four road foes 41.5 to 25.2 per game. Still, Cutcliffe says playing on the opponent's turf is no big deal.
"I like road trips, to be honest with you," he said. "We've just got to focus on playing football. There's plenty to play for, so I think everybody's pretty excited about going and getting the game played."
So does Fulmer, who noted that "I have never made a big deal out of being at home or being on the road. That's because you've got to play ‘em both in this league."
Even so, Tennessee has been a much more mistake-prone team on the road. Seven of the Vols' 12 turnovers this season have been committed in the four road games, just five in the seven home games. Passers Erik Ainge and Jonathan Crompton have been particularly charitable on the road, throwing five of their seven combined interceptions there. Still, Cutcliffe puts no stock in such statistics.
"Sometimes things just happen," he said. "You can beat yourself up statistically. When you start putting the pencil to something you may break the lead after a while, so you just go play football."