Photo by Michael Patrick, copyright © 2012 // Buy this photo
Photo by Charlie Daniel // Buy this photo
The end of the Derek Dooley era came last Sunday, shortly after Tennessee was stomped by Vanderbilt in a loss that guaranteed the Vols would finish with a losing record for the third consecutive season.
But the beginning of the end came one year ago, when Kentucky stunned Tennessee 10-7 in Lexington to snap a 26-game winning streak in the series.
The Vols (4-7, 0-7 SEC) and Wildcats (2-9, 0-7) meet again today (TV: WVLT, 12:21 p.m.) in a game that features an interim coach (Tennessee's Jim Chaney) and a lame-duck one (Kentucky's Joker Phillips).
Last year's loss cost Tennessee an opportunity to play in a bowl game, but the repercussions for Dooley's tenure were even more severe. Fans were furious, and the defeat guaranteed that Dooley would enter the 2012 season on the "hot seat." Assistant coaches started dusting off their resumes. Seven left during the offseason, many in search of a more stable situation.
Today, the coaches that came in to replace the seven that left are also likely coaching their last game in orange, but not by choice. Thirteen seniors are also departing, including linebacker Herman Lathers, offensive lineman Dallas Thomas, tight end Mychal Rivera and receiver Zach Rogers.
Juniors Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson and Ja'Wuan James could also depart early to enter the NFL draft.
"Our whole motto this week is playing for the seniors and not worrying about what happened in the past and all of the distractions that are going on right now," said Lathers.
But how many fans will be at Neyland Stadium for the send-off? Tennessee fans may understandably be more interested in the coaching search than the final game of a depressing season. Kentucky fans are more attuned to their defending national champion basketball team. Many students will be home for Thanksgiving.
Tennessee said earlier this week that it had sold about 81,000 tickets, although not all of those fans will likely find their way to the stadium.
A new coach could energize ticket sales which have lagged since Tennessee's struggles began in 2008.
In the meantime, players have vowed they haven't thrown in the towel on the season.
"There's definitely fight," said Lathers. "The whole offseason and throughout everything that's happened this year we stuck together. (The season) wasn't what we expected and what we thought was going to happen, but we fought all year. I think we've got a lot of fight still in us. We'll see Saturday and hopefully we'll come out with the result that we want."
Despite Tennessee's struggles this year, it is still a 14-point favorite today, and a loss by the Vols would be historic. Although the 26-year streak ended last year, Tennessee still has a 13-game winning streak against Kentucky at Neyland Stadium, last losing in 1984.
"No matter how successful of a season you have or how bad of a season you have, if you lose that last game, that's going to be a bad taste in your mouth no matter what your record is," said senior Prentiss Waggner. "To come out with a win is going to be positive no matter what the record is."
Seniors also haven't forgotten last year's dismal finish and how it bled into this even more dismal season.
"Any loss will eat away at you, but that (Kentucky) one especially," Rogers said. "We want to go out and avenge that one."
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.