(WBIR - Knoxville) This weekend the Tennessee Vols (4-7) take on the Kentucky Wildcats (2-9) and both teams seemingly have little to play for. But the history behind the Tennessee and Kentucky series reveals a rivalry rooted in Thanksgiving tradition. Tennessee also has a very long streak at stake in terms of its two traditional Thanksgiving foes.
Kentucky Vandy Combo Streak
UT's loss to Vanderbilt last weekend put a streak that is nearly half a century old in jeopardy. The Vols have not lost to both Vanderbilt and Kentucky in the same season since 1964.
There have only been eight seasons when the Commodores and Wildcats both defeated Tennessee since the Vols began playing football in 1891. Those dubious years for UT came in 1909, 1910, 1915, 1925, 1935, 1954, 1959, and the aforementioned 1964 season. Tennessee tied Kentucky and lost to Vanderbilt in 1921 and 1948. In 1919 the Vols tied Vandy and lost to Kentucky.
Tennessee's Thanksgiving Beginnings
The Vols' first football game was in 1891 when the school lost to Sewanee 24-0 in Chattanooga. That was the only game UT played 1891. Next year during the Vols' first multi-game season, one of the match-ups was a Thanksgiving Day game against Wake Forest on Thursday, November 24, 1892. For almost half a century after that, pretty much any year that Tennessee fielded a team, you could count on watching the Vols play football on Thanksgiving Day.
One notable year for Thanksgiving football was 1897. Tennessee not only played on Thanksgiving Day against Virginia Tech in Roanoke. The Tennessee football team also played the very next day against Bristol AC on the drive back. UT won both games and presumably missed out on a chance to coin the phrase "black and blue Friday."
Thanksgiving Creates Rivalries
Thanksgiving Day marked some huge moments in Tennessee football history. The very first time Tennessee and Alabama played was a Thanksgiving Day match-up in Birmingham on Thursday, November 28, 1901. In fact, the first eight games between the Crimson Tide and Volunteers were held on Thanksgiving Day in Birmingham.
Thanksgiving football soon became a traditional border war game between Tennessee and Kentucky. The schools' first Thanksgiving Day game was in 1911 when the Vols fell to the Wildcats by a score of 12-0 in Lexington, KY. A couple of years after that game the match-up was solidified as a Thanksgiving tradition. From 1913 to 1938, Tennessee and Kentucky always played each other on Thanksgiving Day (in 1917 and 1918 the schools did not play football during World War One).
The Wildcats were generally a stingy opponent against Tennessee during that time, even during UT's dominance under head coach Robert Neyland. General Neyland never lost to Kentucky on Thanksgiving Day, but he tied the Wildcats three times. The three ties came in 1928, 1929, and 1931. All three seasons, Neyland's Tennessee teams finished with an overall record of 9-0-1, the only blemish each season coming against Kentucky on Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving Moves; Ends Tennessee Tradition
In 1939, Tennessee and Kentucky scheduled their normal Thanksgiving Day game for Thursday, November 30. Then President Franklin D. Roosevelt did a strange thing by moving Thanksgiving a week earlier to November 23 in order to add another week to the Christmas shopping season. The Vols and Wildcats played their game on the Thursday that was supposed to be Thanksgiving with Neyland's squad winning 19-0 in Lexington.
In 1940, Tennessee and Kentucky played on the Saturday following Thanksgiving Day. Ever since 1940, the Vols have always played on Thanksgiving weekend and have always played either Kentucky or Vanderbilt during the extended holiday.
Tennessee's Thanksgiving Weekend Feasts
From 1950 until 2010, the Vols enjoyed a cornucopia of victories against Vanderbilt and Kentucky. During that span, UT only lost seven times on Thanksgiving weekend (1954, 1959, 1962, 1964, 1975, 1982, 1984). The Vols also had one Thanksgiving weekend tie in 1974 against Vanderbilt in Nashville.
The loss to Kentucky on Thanksgiving weekend in 1984 was one Wildcat fans would have to savor for a very long time. In 1985 Tennessee began a run of absolute domination against Kentucky. The Vols routinely whipped the Wildcats and did not lose to Kentucky until 2011 in Lexington. That 2011 loss also marked the first time Tennessee was defeated on Thanksgiving weekend since 1984.
Last year Tennessee bounced back with a Thanksgiving weekend victory against Kentucky in Neyland Stadium. This weekend's game is UT's first trip to Lexington since the Vols watched Kentucky's fans storm the field in celebration of snapping what was then the nation's longest active winning streak by one school against a single opponent.
This weekend the Vols have a chance at revenge and an opportunity to send the UT seniors out with a victory. They will also want to avoid losing to Vandy and Kentucky in the same season for the first time since 1964. But a victory this weekend would also give UT back-to-back Thanksgiving weekend wins and possibly begin another streak of Thanksgiving feasts.