Brooks, Cats keep knocking down barriers

Never mind that he’s 68 years old. Rich Brooks is a former boxer and still likes a good fight.

Seven years ago, he took on the fight of his football life when he accepted the head coaching job at Kentucky.

He’s been knocking down barriers ever since, but one of the biggest remains.

A bright orange one that has stood in Kentucky’s way for 24 consecutive years now.

The last time Kentucky beat Tennessee was 1984, a span of 24 straight games. It’s the longest active losing streak in the country among teams that play every year.

There’s not a single player on Kentucky's team that was alive the last time the Wildcats beat the Vols.

“There are so many streaks that I hear about,” Brooks said. “We’ve changed a lot of them, but some of them remain unchanged. That’s my job to try and get more positive things happening in what used to be a rivalry.

“Of late, it really hasn’t been, because they’ve owned it.”

History really hasn’t seemed to faze this Kentucky team. But, then, Brooks and the Wildcats punched history in the face a long time ago.

They’ve won three straight bowl games for the first time in school history.

They’ve had four straight seasons of at least seven wins, which last happened at Kentucky nearly 100 years ago.

They won at Georgia last week for the first time in 32 years. They won at Auburn earlier this season for the first time in 43 years.

They’ve won five of their last six games heading into the Tennessee contest and can clinch their first-ever second-place finish in the SEC East with a win over the Vols.

Depending on what else happens this week, the Wildcats (7-4, 3-4) also have a chance to finish the regular season with more wins than anybody else in the league other than Alabama, Florida, LSU and Ole Miss.

“The knock on us has been that we’re a bottom-feeder in the SEC,” Brooks said. “Finishing second in the SEC East would put us above some teams that we have historically struggled against. It would be a major step forward.”

Here’s the other thing different about this Kentucky team: The Wildcats haven’t crumbled late in the season despite a rash of injuries. They’ve hung in there, and other players have stepped up and played key roles.

That’s another indication of how far this program has come under Brooks. The recruiting has been better, and there’s some genuine depth now, particularly on defense.

Beating Tennessee would probably land Kentucky in the Outback Bowl.

But there’s much more at stake this Saturday for the Wildcats than their bowl destination.

Ending Tennessee’s stranglehold in this series would be another barrier gone by the wayside, maybe the biggest yet, for a program that’s enjoying the kind of ride that very few thought possible when that ex-boxer from Oregon arrived seven years ago.