When a pair of Tennessee linebackers recruited by third-year coach Jeremy Pruitt stacked up Georgia's Zamir White at the goal-line on the final play of the first half just a week ago, the Volunteers appeared to be on the cusp of returning to national prominence. They were 2-0, ranked No. 14 and led the No. 3 Bulldogs at halftime while looking every bit the physical match for one of the nation's elite programs.
Just six quarters later, the Volunteers are in utter disarray with No. 2 Alabama up next.
Kentucky forced four turnovers in the first half alone and snapped a 17-game road losing streak in the series with a dominant 34-7 victory over No. 18 Tennessee at Neyland Stadium on Saturday. It was Kentucky's largest margin of victory in the series since 1935, when Tennessee's legendary coach Robert Neyland was away on a tour of active duty in the military amid his historic run of success.
The loss will provide Tennessee fans -- and Pruitt -- with plenty to commiserate over. But it's also an indication of how strong a program Mark Stoops has built in his eighth year at Kentucky. As the Vols' season has taken a dramatic turn for the worse in the past two weeks, Kentucky's has taken an equally stunning turn for the better.
Kentucky sat at 0-2 following a 29-13 loss to Auburn and a 42-41 loss to Ole Miss. Lofty preseason expectations suddenly felt out of reach as Mississippi State came to Lexington, Kentucky, last week. That's when Kentucky started proving that some teams in the SEC do actually still play defense. The Wildcats intercepted six passes against the Bulldogs in a 24-2 victory as they held Mike Leach's offense without an offensive score for the first time in his 19 years as a coach.
On Saturday, they proved that performance was no anomaly. Kentucky's first 14 points came courtesy of pick-six plays on Tennessee's veteran quarterback Jarrett Guarantano.
When the Volunteers (2-2, 2-2 SEC) turned to redshirt sophomore J.T. Shrout as a replacement in the second quarter, the Wildcats (2-2, 2-2) picked off his only pass attempt. In total, they forced 10 turnovers in a six-quarter span covering the victory vs, Mississippi State game and the first half of the victory vs. Tennessee.
The performance could be enough to get Kentucky back into the AP Top 25 next week, or at least to the brink of it. The dominant defensive effort was a testament to the strength of Kentucky's program. It was also an embarrassment for Tennessee, which in one week's time has gone from a sleeper pick to contend for the SEC title to a team searching again for its identity.