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Coming off a 38-7 home loss to LSU, Tennessee was 3-3 heading into its 2011 game at second-ranked Alabama. The Tide won by 31 points, 37-6.
Coming off a 41-31 road loss at Mississippi State, Tennessee was 3-3 heading into its 2012 game with top-ranked Alabama. The Tide won by 31 points, 44-13.
Notice a pattern? Three times Tennessee faced Bama in the past three years. Three times the Vols suffered a 31-point beat-down. The obvious question: With the Tide 7-0 and ranked No. 1, why should this year be any different?
For one thing, Derek Dooley (author of those three 31-point losses) is no longer Tennessee's head coach. Proven winner Butch Jones is.
"I think we've got a great coaching staff," junior quarterback Justin Worley said. "They've done a great job of bringing us along this past six or seven weeks."
Another positive: The Vols are carrying a winning record (4-3) into the Bama game for a change.
"We have a completely different mindset," senior defensive end Corey Miller said. "Our effort is different. Our style of play is different. I feel like we have a better chance than we've ever had. We're all-out every play, running to the ball, trying to wear out our opponent for 60 minutes, and it's definitely working."
Worley also touched on the new mindset.
"Our confidence levels are higher than they've ever been since I've been here," he said. "I'm excited for the opportunity, as well as everybody else on the team."
Senior punter/kicker Michael Palardy, a participant in those 31-point losses the past three years, agrees.
"We're a lot more confident football team," he said. "Coach Jones instills a lot of confidence in us. The biggest thing is making sure we go out with the mindset of playing our game … not playing their game … not worrying about what ranking they are … where we are … the surroundings and what-not."
Senior defensive end Marlon Walls notes a totally different mood among the Vols heading into this Bama game.
"We're just going to work, man," he said. "We're ready to show that we can play in the SEC. We're just going to play a little smash-mouth football, like we always do. Coach Jones is a great motivator; he knows how to get under our skin and make us push a little more."
Whereas the 2010, 2011 and 2012 squads were coming off double-digit losses, this year's Tennessee team is coming off the program's biggest win in at least four years – a 23-21 upset of No. 11 South Carolina – as it prepares to face the Tide. That helps.
"It's huge," Palardy said. "But we never want to play thinking about a game prior or a game in the future. We always want to play that game that's at hand.
"We all know we have a challenge. Alabama's an unbelievable football team; we all know that. But we're really excited. We're a confident football team. We've got to have a great week of preparation and hopefully go into Tuscaloosa ready to go."
Senior offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James also believes the upset of South Carolina has given the Vols a little added spring in their step as they prepare to face the Tide.
"That definitely helps confidence, especially in our younger guys … everybody on our team," he said. "Our team knows we're capable of winning big games, so now we've got to go out there and try to win another one."
The Vols seemed intimidated in the previous three meetings with Bama. They insist that isn't the case this time.
"We believe in ourselves," safety Brian Randolph said. "We believe we can go out there and win. We believe we can go out there with anybody in the country, and that's what we're going to try to go out and show people."
Recent history aside, the Vols are excited about facing Bama. It's a special rivalry, and the fact the Tide is ranked No. 1 team makes Saturday's game in Tuscaloosa even more special. Senior running back Rajion Neal said it best:
"At the end of the day, man, what have we got to lose?" he said. "Let's lay it on the line."