The Gauntlet

For Tennessee's football team, the Payback Tour starts today.

Georgia visits Neyland Stadium tonight, followed by LSU next Saturday. Alabama hosts the Vols the following weekend, then South Carolina invades Neyland Stadium to close October.

Each of these four teams beat the Big Orange a year ago, which means Tennessee could get a hefty dose of vengeance this month ... or it could get another hefty dose of humility.

Either way, the Vols are eager to begin The Gauntlet.

"It's a huge measuring stick," senior linebacker Austin Johnson said. "We've got four tough games in a row and a lot of revenge to pay back. This is really going to show us where we stand and how far we've come since last year. I think we need to prepare each week as if it's the biggest game of the year."

Sophomore guard Zach Fulton thinks so, too. He's excited about the opportunity to face four teams who vanquished the Vols last fall.

"It's great competition and SEC foes," Fulton said. "It's going to be great games. They all beat us last year but we're a different team than last year ... a lot better."

Senior defensive tackle Malik Jackson relishes the chance to prove that Tennessee's rebuilding effort has turned the corner.

"I think this is a great time for us to go out and show the world that Tennessee is not a team that's just going to beat the Buffalos and the Montanas," he said. "This is a chance to show them that we can play with the Georgias and the LSUs."

Tennessee clearly couldn't play with Georgia last fall, which it proved conclusively in a 41-14 loss. The Vols couldn't hang with Alabama (41-10 loss) or South Carolina (38-24 loss), either. The only team among the four that Tennessee challenged a year ago was LSU, which was fortunate to post a 16-14 victory on its home field. Ultimately, those four games made for one miserable October in Big Orange Country.

"It felt like we couldn't do anything right," recalled sophomore Daniel Hood, who switched from offensive line to the defensive line this year. "On the offensive line one game - it might've been the Georgia game - we had like 30 MAs (missed assignments) out of 60 snaps. Something like that tears you down."

Hood believes the Vols have a much better team chemistry in 2011, and that will keep them from wilting the way they did last October.

"I think it's a lot different this year," he said. "We've got more confidence and we've got a lot more talent than we've had the past couple of years. We know we can win, and we know we've just got to go out there and prove it."

There could be no greater opportunity to "prove it" than facing four teams who whipped Tennessee a year ago. The Vols know this but insist they won't think about LSU, Bama and South Carolina until the Georgia game is in the rear-view mirror.

"I think these four games are a proving ground, and I think we have to approach it that way," senior tailback Tauren Poole said. "But the month of October is not a game. It's four games, and we've got to take one game a week."

That was a common theme among Tennessee's players all week, which suggests the idea came straight from the top.

"Coach (Derek) Dooley told us we just play one game a week," Jackson said. "This week we've got Georgia. We're going to take it as a one-game season. We're going to worry about Georgia this week, then next week worry about what we have to do that week. We're not dwelling on October. We're just dwelling on Georgia right now."

Hood believes each game should be cherished, noting: "We only get 12 opportunities a year that we're guaranteed to play. If you look past anybody it's going to be no good. Each week you've got to take advantage of the one because we only get 12."

Exhibiting a real knack for metaphor, sophomore defensive end Jacques Smith called the next four games "a big measuring stick," then added: "But we're going to measure it an inch at a time. We're not taking the whole test; we're taking it one question at a time. Our first question is: Who's going to be the winner between Georgia and Tennessee?"

That kind of talk surely pleases Dooley, who has been hammering home the "one game at a time" theme all week.

"It doesn't matter who we played last week or who we play next week," the head man said. "You've just got to go week to week. Is this another measuring stick of where we want to be? Of course, it is, but I think every game in some ways is.

"Ultimately, though, we're going to get measured on how we play against these (next four) teams, and I understand that."


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