KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Tennessee doesn't expect to have trouble finding motivation for Saturday's season finale at Kentucky finale even though a bowl bid isn't at stake.
The chance to build momentum by earning its first true road win in three years is all the incentive the Volunteers need.
"We have to prove that we can go on the road and win football games," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "There's a lot to play for. I think our players understand that."
Although Tennessee beat North Carolina State 35-21 at the Georgia Dome in its 2012 season opener, the Volunteers haven't won a game in an opposing team's stadium since a 24-10 victory over Vanderbilt on Nov. 20, 2010. The Vols have dropped 12 consecutive true road games, including a 10-7 loss at Kentucky in 2011 that ended Tennessee's 26-game winning streak in this annual series.
"I don't think it will be difficult to get motivated at all," senior offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James said. "We are all competitive. For the seniors, this is our last college football game. We want to go out there and compete and play to the best of our abilities. I am going to try and make that 60 minutes last as long as I can."
One month ago, it didn't seem likely that Tennessee already would be out of bowl contention as it prepared for its final regular-season game. The Vols owned a 4-3 record after a 23-21 upset of No. 10 South Carolina, which was ranked 11th at the time of their Oct. 19 meeting.
Tennessee (4-7, 1-6 SEC) hasn't won since.
Starting quarterback Justin Worley injured his right thumb the next week in a 45-10 loss to top-ranked Alabama. Worley was replaced by freshman Joshua Dobbs, who has thrown five interceptions and no touchdown passes. A pass rush that recorded four sacks against South Carolina has produced only one sack during this four-game skid.
Tennessee gradually wore down amid a grueling schedule that included seven ranked opponents in an eight-game stretch.
"I haven't hidden from the question about our lack of depth," Jones said. "It is what it is. I'm a realist and that's an issue that we have to get corrected in the recruiting process. We have to recruit our way out of our depth issues. You do it through developing your current players, but also going out in the recruitment process."
Jones has addressed those depth issues by assembling a 2014 recruiting class ranked among the nation's best. Saturday's game provides one more opportunity for Tennessee's current players to make an impression on this staff before those newcomers arrive on campus and start competing for playing time.
"If you are a competitor, it is another opportunity to compete," Jones said. "We always talk about competitive character in our football program. So that is first and foremost. You are representing Tennessee. It is another opportunity. For the younger players, it is another opportunity to put their football identity and their football resume on film as we continue to build this football program and move forward."
There also is incentive for Tennessee's seniors. They see this as a chance to improve their legacy, boost a rebuilding program and set an example for the underclassmen.
"Our senior class has been through so much together, so much adversity," senior kicker/punter Michael Palardy said. "Coach Jones always says, 'Football is life, just sped up faster.' I think all of the adversity that we've gone through in the past four years has made us not only better players, but better men as well. So we can pass that on to the younger guys and show them you're going to hit adversity, you're going to go through bumps in the road, but it's how you overcome that adversity that makes you who you are, not (only) as a man but as a player as well."