Opportunity knocks

Facing the country's top-ranked team is the greatest challenge in college football. It's also the greatest opportunity.

The Tennessee Vols are exhilarated about that opportunity as they prepare for Saturday's visit from No. 1 LSU. They realize an upset could be a monumental springboard for a program that is limping along at 21-22 over the past three-plus seasons.

"Everybody on the field has a little more spring in their step," junior tight end Mychal Rivera said following Tuesday's practice. "This is a huge challenge coming, and this opportunity is amazing. To take down a No. 1 ... that's what you dream of."

Junior fullback Ben Bartholomew has noticed the same thing.

"We're really excited to have the No. 1 team coming into our house," he said. "We're definitely seeing this as a great opportunity. The scout team's coming harder and we're trying to go harder, as well.

"It's an amazing opportunity to get our name out there (on the national stage) when you're playing No. 1. That's why you come to Tennessee ... to get opportunities like this."

Senior defensive tackle Malik Jackson also senses a little extra adrenalin among the Vols this week.

"I'm trying to hold it in but I think everybody's excited," he said. "You don't get too many chances to play the No. 1 team in the nation. You really don't get too many chances to play the No. 1 team and be as good as we are to go against 'em and try to stop 'em."

Ditto for sophomore guard Alex Bullard, a first-year transfer from Notre Dame.

"It's really exciting to go against the top competition," he said. "That's why you come to the SEC — to play against the best. LSU right now is No. 1, so it's really exciting to have that opportunity to go and give them a run for their money."

Tennessee has faced top-ranked teams 10 times previously in program history, springing the upset on two occasions. The 1959 Vols shocked Billy Cannon and LSU 14-13, then the 1985 Vols stunned Bo Jackson and Auburn 38-20. Both games were played on Shields-Watkins Field, site of Saturday's Tennessee-LSU game.

Tight end Mychal Rivera and the Vols understand the opportunity before them.
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)

Although the 2011 Vols are prohibitive underdogs this week, they believe they proved last year that they can hang with LSU. Tennessee would've won 14-10 except it had too many men on the field for what should've been the game's final play. Given an additional snap after the clock officially expired, LSU scored the game-winning touchdown to prevail 16-14.

The Vols have not forgotten that bitter disappointment.

"It would be nice to get 'em back ... but you can't be holding grudges for a whole year," Jackson said. "You just want to go out there and show them that last year was a fluke."

Sophomore defensive end Jacques Smith isn't nearly as philosophical as his teammate about last year's game. It gnaws at him to this day.

"I think it gives us a lot of confidence knowing we beat these guys last year," he said. "I mean, legitimately, we did. It just didn't show on the scoreboard. That's something we've got to get done this year - beat 'em on the scoreboard and beat the refs."

Ultimately, the Vols had no one to blame but themselves for last year's loss. Their defense allowed LSU to drive the length of the field in the final two minutes en route to the winning touchdown.

"We just messed up," Jackson said. "We had plenty of opportunities. We had two fourth downs where we could've stopped 'em but we had mental errors. We messed up ourselves. We could've been done with that game a good minute and a half before the clock ran out."

Despite being 14-point underdogs this week, Tennessee's players believe the scare they gave LSU last fall is a plus as they prepare for the rematch.

"It definitely excites us," Bartholomew said. "We came out and hit 'em in the mouth last year, had a really good game, so that just encourages us for this year."

Sophomore safety Brent Brewer agrees, noting: "That helps a lot. We know we can play with them. They've got some great athletes and we've got some great athletes, so we just have to go out there and play."

Still, most observers give Tennessee no chance Saturday, since star quarterback Tyler Bray is sidelined by a fractured thumb and backup Matt Simms is filling the void.

"Nobody ever gives us a chance, so it's nothing new," Jackson said. "Tyler's only one player on our team. He's a great player — don't get me wrong — but there's 11 people on each side of the ball. I think if everybody just comes together and plays hard-nosed football with no mistakes, I think we'll be fine with Matt back there."

Junior safety Prentiss Waggner echoed those sentiments.

"Coming into this game, most people wouldn't have given us a chance, even with Tyler," he said. "We look forward to encouraging Matt Simms. He was the quarterback last year in Baton Rouge, so hopefully he can get the job done."

Brewer added a hearty amen to that.

"I know we'll do good," he said. "Matt Simms is a great quarterback. He can throw the ball anywhere on the field. We'll be fine."

Sophomore center James Stone isn't ready to concede victory, either.

"Everybody has an opinion but I feel like we have a great chance," he said. "I have all the confidence in the world in my team, and if we go out there and play to our capabilities we'll be able to be successful."

Tennessee vs. No. 1

1959: No. 13 Tennessee 14, No. 1 LSU 13

1979: No. 1 Alabama 27, Tennessee 17

1980: No. 1 Alabama 27, Tennessee 0

1985: Tennessee 38, No. 1 Auburn 20

1990: No. 1 Notre Dame 34, No. 9 Tennessee 29

1994: No. 1 Florida 31, No. 14 Tennessee 0

1997: No. 1 Florida 33, No. 4 Tennessee 20

2002: No. 1 Miami 26, Tennessee 3

2009: No. 1 Florida 23, Tennessee 13

2010: No. 1 Alabama 12, Tennessee 10

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