''I don't know when we DON'T have a bulls-eye on us,'' UT head man Phillip Fulmer said during his Tuesday news conference. ''Auburn's like us -- fighting like heck for position in the conference and for national respect. It'll be a humdinger.''
Historically speaking, most Vol-Tiger games qualify as humdingers. Auburn leads the series 22-21-3 but Tennessee has won the last four meetings and is 5-0-1 in the last six outings. Even during Tennessee's 1998 run to the national title, however, the Vols found Auburn a tough nut to crack, winning by a mere 17-9 score.
Fulmer knows from first-hand experience that an ambush could be awaiting the Vols. He recalled that the 1970 UT team he played for went 11-1, suffering its only loss against Auburn in Birmingham, 36-23.
The 2003 Tigers are something of an enigma, however. They were blown out 23-0 by Southern Cal in the opener and came out flat a week later in a 17-3 loss to Georgia Tech. Their touted offense kicked into gear shortly thereafter, though, fueling blowouts of Vanderbilt (45-7) and Western Kentucky (48-3) the past two games.
Asked what USC and Georgia Tech did to shut down Auburn's vaunted running attack, Fulmer replied: ''They made some plays at the line of scrimmage and Auburn made some turnovers. That'll kill you quicker than anything.''
Tennessee made zero turnovers last Saturday against South Carolina, which Fulmer found quite encouraging. The Vols also went four-for-four in the so-called ''Orange Area,'' scoring three touchdowns and a field goal once they moved inside Carolina's 20-yard line.
One number Fulmer didn't like, however, was the fact Tennessee surrendered 217 rushing yards. If the defense is that generous vs. Auburn, the Vols almost certainly will suffer their first loss of the season. Surrendering 200-plus rushing yards is a sure way to get beat.
''It's a concern. If we made a real habit of that, I'd be real, real concerned,'' Fulmer said. ''Typically, we don't give up too many yards rushing. We've got to get back down behind our pads, making sure we're taking care of our responsibilities, attacking well, taking proper pursuit angles and all of the other things that keep you from giving up 200 yards rushing.
''It's going to be a real challenge.''
Part of that challenge will be dealing with the noise at Jordan-Hare Stadium. It's one of the SEC's noisiest venues.
''We've got to handle the crowd noise,'' Fulmer noted. ''We didn't handle it that well at Florida (UT's previous road game). We had three illegal procedure penalties that day.''
Offensively, Fulmer labeled Auburn's running backs ''outstanding players.'' Of course, Tennessee also has a couple of quality backs itself -- Cedric Houston and Jabari Davis. Asked to compare UT's and Auburn's rushers, Fulmer said: ''They (Auburn backs) are probably quicker than our guys but our guys probably do some things better. I'd say it's a wash.''
Defensively, the Vol boss noted that the Tigers have ''the best front we've played against, really outstanding linebackers and a good secondary.''
Given all of this, Fulmer's forecast wasn't too surprising.
''It's our biggest challenge of the year,'' he said. ''It should be a heck of a football game.''