So why should this year be any different? With a victory over either Vanderbilt this Saturday or Kentucky on Nov. 27, the 15th-ranked Vols (7-2, 5-1 SEC) will win the SEC East and play Auburn for the SEC championship on Dec. 4.
"I guess you've just got to win one of two now, but I don't think anybody here is looking at it that way," coach Phillip Fulmer said.
Junior Rick Clausen will make his first start on Saturday, and even though the Vols should have enough to beat the Commodores without an extraordinary performance from the quarterback position, they also can't afford to take anything for granted with so much on the line.
"We don't take them lightly at all because we know they're not taking us lightly," linebacker Kevin Burnett told The Tennessean. "This will make their season and make their four years there if they can go beat Tennessee once. We have the same attitude that, 'Hey, this could be embarrassing. This could ruin our championship hopes. This could ruin everything if we lose this game.'
"We're not playing just to play Vanderbilt anymore. This has a lot at stake. We have the ring at stake. It would kill me for us to lose to Vanderbilt."
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The loss of QBs Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer to injuries isn't Tennessee's only offensive problems. The Vols are struggling in short-yardage situations on third and fourth downs, and that's probably only going to get worse with third-stringer Rick Clausen at quarterback and defenses loading up for the run. Of Tennessee's past 10 chances on third-and-2 or less or fourth-and-2 or less, they've failed six times.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The defense remains Tennessee's best chance of winning week to week and will have to carry the offense over the final two games. The play of DL Jesse Mahelona and Parys Haralson has given UT a stronger presence of up front, and LB Kevin Burnett and FS Jason Allen are making plays all over the field, but the Vols could use more than the 17 takeaways they've produced so far.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You don't want to go in there limping. You want to go in there on a roll with a lot of momentum and a lot of confidence and with great confidence in your quarterback. If we win in style, I think that will build confidence in the team." -- Tennessee WR Tony Brown on preparing for the SEC championship game with victories over Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Tennessee at Vanderbilt, Nov. 20 -- No SEC team needed an open date more than Tennessee this week, two weeks after losing backup QB Brent Schaeffer and one week after starting QB Erik Ainge. The Vols need to make good use of this extra preparation time to get Rick Clausen and C.J. Leak ready for games against Vanderbilt and Kentucky that seem more dangerous than they did two weeks ago.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: QB Rick Clausen -- He didn't play well off the bench in the loss to Notre Dame, but now he has to prepare to start and play the entire game. He may be a junior but he's barely played during his college career and couldn't beat out two true freshmen for the starting job. "As he went along, he got better," coach Phillip Fulmer said of Clausen's performance against Notre Dame last week. "It was the first real playing time for him in a long time. He certainly wasn't intimidated by the set of circumstances. Fortunately, he's kept himself mentally prepared to be able to handle a game. He's very bright and now gets a chance to lead us to an opportunity to play for an SEC championship."
DT Jesse Mahelona -- With five more tackles for loss against Notre Dame, Mahelona was the SEC defensive lineman of the week and leads the SEC with 16.5 tackles for loss this the season.
FS Jason Allen -- It's usually not a good sign when a free safety leads the team in tackles, but Allen actually leads the SEC with 93 total tackles because he's an active player who knows how to read the run and step up and make the play.
ROSTER REPORT: Last week's open date should be good for Tennessee's bruised and battered offensive line. Center Jason Respert is back at practice after resting his injured ankle, and the only question mark this week is guard Cody Douglas and his sprained foot. If he can't play, Tennessee will go with Richie Gandy at Douglas' guard spot and Arron Sears and Michael Munoz at the two tackles. The prospect of getting the line back together and healthy again would be a big boost for the Vols. "You can look at the first couple weeks of the season when everybody was healthy, and we were clicking on all cylinders and how successful we were offensively," Respert told The Tennessean. "We're trying to get back to that now. I think we're going to be close the next couple of weeks."