First things first. It’s been since 1984 that Kentucky beat Tennessee in Knoxville. It was 17-12, a fact I remember because when was growing up on the Kentucky/Tennessee border, I heard a Knoxville radio host say, “Well, the last time Kentucky beat Tennessee it was 17-12.” And the co-host said, “Was that the score or the year?”

There have been times since 1984 that it seemed like it might have been 1712 when the ‘Cats took possession of the beer barrel (which hasn’t been a thing since 1998). For much of that period, Kentucky has stuck to the script of being led by the wrong guy or the right guy at the wrong time or being on NCAA probation. But of course, things have changed during the Mark Stoops era. Except not in Knoxville.

Yes, Stoops does own a win against UT — the 29-26 victory in Lexington in 2017 was the ‘Cats 2nd in 35 years — but the struggle for consistent success against the Vols continues to highlight Kentucky’s next step.

Following the SEC’s modern alignment in 1992, the SEC East dissolved into a clear football pecking order. The big dogs are Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. Sure, sometimes there’s only been one truly big dog. Sure, sometimes each of those schools has fallen into the ranks of the also-rans. But the road to contending in the East runs through those 3 programs.

That was a problem for Kentucky for several reasons. Yes, the Wildcats haven’t been Georgia since 2009, but they’ve played competitive games with Georgia and pulled off the occasional upset over the years. Florida had its own 3-decade winning streak over the Wildcats, but Kentucky ended that one in 2018, and has certainly held serve with the Gators in recent years (only to lose in frequently heartbreaking fashion).

But Tennessee? The 2010s were not at all kind to the Vols. Missouri and South Carolina have been factors in the SEC title race more recently than the Vols. But UT is looking for its 18th consecutive win at home over Kentucky on Saturday anyway.

A significant part of Mark Stoops’ job at Kentucky was to create a new culture and erase a negative tradition. A team that literally went 25+ years without beating 2 of the 6 teams in its own division could not hope to claim any meaningful role in the SEC.

In many ways, winning in Knoxville is the final hurdle in Kentucky’s journey to SEC respectability. Stoops has done well against Missouri, South Carolina and Vandy. Georgia has been a problem. But Kentucky has narrowed the gap against Florida and Tennessee. The next task is to convert an evening playing field in talent into at least the occasional win.

The SEC-only COVID schedule only heightens the significance of the matchup with Tennessee. In many previous years, Kentucky would have reacted to the all-SEC schedule about the same way Vandy has. But, for once, matching up with SEC teams generally doesn’t feel like an impossibility (although, yes, Alabama and Georgia are still lurking in Kentucky’s schedule). But after a tough loss at Auburn and an astonishing stumble against Lane Kiffin’s pass-heavy Rebels air attack, Kentucky really doesn’t have any margin for error left in 2020.

At 1-2, even an optimist would struggle to see many potential wins aside from Vandy, Missouri (which suddenly looks much less certain) and South Carolina (and who knows what will be going on by December).

Beat Tennessee and Stoops can end another painful Kentucky streak and keep a very decent chance of a 5-5 season. Lose the game Saturday and a fair part of Big Blue Nation will start talking about basketball.