The Big Orange's October schedule features consecutive SEC showdowns against Georgia (which humiliated Tennessee 41-14 last fall), LSU (ranked No. 1 nationally), Alabama (ranked No. 3 nationally) and defending SEC East champ South Carolina (ranked No. 10 nationally). Simply put, that four-game stretch will make or break the season.
First, however, the Vols must try to generate some focus and enthusiasm for a 1-3 Buffalo team whose only victory to date came against Stony Brook of the Football Championship Subdivision. Even with Tennessee's coaches preaching the old "one game at a time" sermon, the Vols are tempted to look down the road a bit.
"It's hard not to look ahead, considering who we've got coming up," senior linebacker Austin Johnson conceded following Monday's practice. "But we can't (afford to). We've got to take one game at a time. We've got Buffalo coming up this week, and we've got to focus on them. Then we focus on the next game after that."
Linebackers coach Peter Sirmon has an interesting approach he hopes will force his troops to treat Buffalo the same as any other foe.
"Coach Sirmon tells us that each week's opponent is nameless, faceless," Johnson said. "It doesn't matter who we're playing; we've got to prepare for them the same way, and that's basically how we do it. We've got a nameless, faceless opponent this week, and we'll prepare for them the same way we'll prepare for Georgia the next week."
One factor that should help the Vols take Buffalo seriously is the fact they survived quite a scare in a similar circumstance just 51 weeks ago. The 2010 Vols also were coming off a Game 3 loss to Florida when they went up against a lightly regarded UAB team in Game 4. Clearly uninspired, Tennessee needed an overtime period to nip the Blazers 32-29 and avert a devastating setback.
"We struggled a little bit against UAB last year," Johnson recalled. "We obviously were overlooking 'em, and they came out and battled us tough."
Senior defensive tackle Malik Jackson has similar recollections of that game.
"I learned that you never take a team for granted," he said. "With teams like those, we're the big guys that can make their season, so we've got to do what we're supposed to do to this team, then move on to the Georgias and the LSUs."
Sophomore center James Stone thinks the key this week isn't focusing on Buffalo so much as focusing on Tennessee.
"We look at getting better fundamentally and improving every day," he said. "We really don't think about (other) teams; we worry about our team and improving us. We've got to get better every day."
Junior defensive end Willie Bohannon insists the Vols must take care of business in this game ... or else.
"You have to focus on it unless you want to get beat or do like we did against UAB and go into the Georgia game feeling horrible about ourselves," Bohannon said. "If we beat this team like we should, then we'll go against those big-name teams displaying confidence."
The 2010 UAB game bothers Bohannon to this day on a couple of fronts.
"Individually, that's when I lost my starting position, so I know I've got to play hard every snap or I'm going to lose it again," he recalled. "As a team, we learned we've got to play at our level every time. They've got to play up to us; we can't play down to their level."
Stone touched on the same theme.
"Any time you step out on the field you've got to bring your all and give your best," he said, "because you know you're going to get their best."
Tennessee led UAB 23-7 at halftime last fall, then got complacent. The Blazers took advantage, outscoring the Vols 19-3 in the third and fourth quarters to force the OT. That provided a valuable lesson.
"You can't ever let up," Stone said. "That's one of our maxims: You always put on more steam."
Bohannon suggests that the sloppy effort vs. UAB was a matter of the Vols never getting up, more so than letting up.
"Even when we had a big lead, we still weren't playing up to our abilities," he recalled. "We've just got to play the best we can the whole time."
Junior cornerback Marsalis Teague believes the Vols will benefit this week from their slipshod showing vs. UAB last season.
"We learned that you've always got to come prepared to play," he said. "You can't sit back on your heels. And you've got to finish every game. You can't let up (when you get a lead) on anybody, no matter who our opponent is."
Jackson echoed those sentiments, noting: "Last year we were kind of bad at playing all four quarters, so Coach (Derek) Dooley and Coach (Justin) Wilcox have been really talking about the importance of playing all four quarters. I think we've gotten really better at that but only time will tell."
That time arrives Saturday at 12:35.