As bad as the Vols are, the Memphis team they face tonight at Liberty Bowl Stadium is even worse. The Tigers are 1-7, with losses by such scores as 49-7 (Mississippi State), 49-27 (East Carolina), 48-7 (Tulsa), 56-0 (Louisville), 41-19 (Southern Miss) and 56-17 (Houston).
Memphis ranks 119th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision schools in total defense (473 yards per game) and 118th in scoring defense (41.5 points per game). Throw in the fact Tennessee has won 21 of the all-time 22 meetings, and it could be difficult for the Vols to take the Tigers seriously.
If that's the case, perhaps UT head man Derek Dooley should ask Peyton Manning to deliver the pregame pep talk. Manning was a junior quarterback for a sixth-ranked Tennessee team that lost 21-17 at Memphis in 1996.
The Big Orange has won six consecutive meetings since then but some of the margins were pretty scant. There was a 17-16 win at Knoxville in '99, a 19-17 win at Memphis in 2000 and a 20-16 win at Knoxville in 2005.
Facing Tennessee tends to bring out the best in Memphis, no matter how bad the Tigers might be. It's a chance for Memphis to salvage its season and, simultaneously, destroy Tennessee's season. The Vols need to be mindful of that when they take the field tonight at 7 Central.
"Especially with the type of year we're having, we have to pay attention to everything," Tennessee tailback Tauren Poole said. "We have to play hard because we know they're going to play as hard as they can."
Junior defensive tackle Malik Jackson echoed that thought, noting: "This is one of our down years, and a lot of people think they can beat us. That would be a big boost for their program. I'm sure they're going to give us all they have."
Tennessee is coming off a murderous October schedule that included road games at LSU, Georgia and South Carolina, plus a home game against defending national champ Alabama. Thus, the 1-7 Memphis Tigers must look like a guaranteed win.
"Nothing's guaranteed, man," Poole said. "We can lose, just like anybody else."
The Vols' chances of losing tonight increase since they're giving freshman quarterback Tyler Bray his first career start. Manning was a seasoned junior when he lost to the Tigers in '96. Poole believes Bray is up to the task, however.
"Tyler is extremely competitive," Poole said. "He just wants to win. He has this winning mentality. He's going to do what he has to do - whatever he has to do - to try his best to win."
The fact Tennessee has benched junior QB Matt Simms, a starter in Games 1 through 8, could be divisive. Poole doesn't see it, though.
"As far as division, I don't think there's going to be much division," he said. "We're going to work with whoever's in at quarterback. We're going to roll with him (Bray)."
Bray needs to step up tonight but he also needs to speak up. His soft-spoken manner made him difficult to hear in huddle and audible situations earlier this season.
"That was so frustrating," Poole said. "I'm right beside him in the huddle and I still can't hear him. I was telling him, 'You have to speak up.' It was kind of affecting him. He was getting mad because people kept telling him he had to speak up. He's doing his job the best he can and he's definitely speaking up now."
Tennessee really needs a fast start tonight because the Vols have shown a marked tendency to fade in the second half. They outscored their first eight foes 89-84 before halftime but were outscored 81-160 after halftime.
"I really don't know what it is - if it's fatigue, if we're sitting in the locker room too long or what," Poole said. "But if there wasn't a second half we'd be doing great."