The Vols, winners of four straight games, will try to remain on a roll when Notre Dame comes to Knoxville Saturday for a renewal of the series.
"I would say with the present state of Irish football that you almost have to look at every game on your schedule as a rivalry because every team looks at Notre Dame in that special light," Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham said. "In order for us to be mentally prepared for those opponents, we have to look at them as a rivalry. That is one of the unique things about Notre Dame. It's understandable that this is one of the things that makes the Notre Dame experience special and makes the Notre Dame player special."
As the head coach at a high profile school like Notre Dame, Willingham has a daunting task in preparing his team each week to play programs like Tennessee. The lofty expectations create a lot of pressure for both players and coaches.
"You have to first understand it (pressure), and understand that it's going to be there, and then be willing to accept the responsibility," Willingham said."My attitude is that you try to coach very consistently. You try not to get your team on that up-and-down rollercoaster. You try to understand that every game is critical. Every game has a rivalry-type nature to you and you try to prepare for it that way."
The Irish might have forgotten that sage advice against Boston College two weeks ago in their last outing, a last-minute 24-23 loss that left Notre Dame with a 5-3 record. The setback might have been the tonic needed for a turnaround.
"Everybody was down after the game," Notre Dame receiver Matt Shelton said. "The next day we started getting over it. It's hard to get over, but we have to deal with it. We had to move on and continue to get better."
Shelton hopes the loss has caused the Irish to refocus in time to be competitive against Tennessee. Notre Dame has had plenty of time to prepare after a bye week.
"We are hungry for a win," he said. "When you come out for a big game like Boston College was and things don't go the way you want them to, you are going to be hungry. We didn't want to wait two more weeks for the next game, but we will be able to get everyone healthy and ready to go for Tennessee."
Despite the tough loss, Notre Dame has enjoyed a much better season to this point than many would have anticipated. After going 2-5 in its first seven games last year, the Irish have improved substantially this season.
Notre Dame even achieved a 24th national ranking two weeks ago. Willingham hopes to avoid a late slide by the Irish.
"It (turnaround) is still not complete," he said. "There are still some games for us to play, and I try to make sure the evaluation comes at the end of the season. "I have said all along that one of the things that allows you to be successful is confidence. And when you have it, it's amazing how much better you play. You run faster and hit harder. You can do all of those things a lot better and our team is no different. Our team is a much more confident team now in many ways than it was last year."
The Irish players seem to believe in their coach. Shelton, for one, says Willingham is a player's coach, a guy you can confide in in tough times.
"I think the players all like him," Shelton said. "He is a good coach. I think we are moving in the right direction. His door is always open to you. What you tell him stays with him. He is very good about confidentiality."