Eye of the Tigers

For the Tennessee Vols, facing Memphis is nothing more than another game. For the Memphis Tigers, facing Tennessee is nothing less than a crusade. That's why Tennessee's superior personnel tends to be a moot point when they meet.

"We try to treat it like any other opponent," Vol offensive tackle Arron Sears said. "They're Opponent X."

Therein lies the rub. Whereas Memphis is Opponent X for Tennessee, the Vols are Christmas, New Years and the Fourth of July all rolled into one for the Tigers. This isn't just another game for Memphis. This one's personal.

It's a foregone conclusion that the Bluff City boys will be sky-high when they take the field at Liberty Bowl Stadium Saturday at 11 a.m. CST. As befits their nickname, they'll exhibit the "eye of the tiger" – remarkable levels of focus, intensity and determination.

What is it about the Tennessee game that skyrockets the Tigers to such an emotional peak?

For one thing, it's an in-state rivalry. For another, it's a chance to gain national recognition by knocking off a ranked opponent. Jealousy may be a factor, as well.

"I believe Memphis doesn't like us at all because I'm pretty sure a lot of their guys wanted to come here," Sears said.

Certainly, being spurned by UT recruiters would provide tremendous motivation to vindicate yourself against the Volunteers.

Whatever the motivations are, Sears knows the Tigers will give everything they've got against Tennessee, just as they did in last November's 20-16 loss at Knoxville.

"It's going to be a good ball game," he noted, "and they're going to be revved up about it."

In the 1980s and ‘90s, Tennessee-Memphis games seemed to feature an unusual amount of cheap shots and trash talk. Sears says that's no longer the case.

"I don't think so," he said, smiling as he added: "All of ‘em pretty much have a lot of trash-talking going on."

Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer knows first-hand how fired up the Tigers get when the opponent is wearing orange. He has a 5-1 record against Memphis but three of the wins were by four points or less. Fulmer believes the in-state rivalry and UT's status as a top-20 program makes Tennessee a special foe for the Tigers.

"It's human nature, and certainly we are one of those for Memphis," he said.

Whereas Tennessee is THE rival for Memphis, however, Memphis is just one of many rivals for Tennessee.

"We have a lot of rivals and we've had a considerable amount of success over a period of time," Fulmer said. "We always get everybody's best."

Based on recent history, the Vols can bank on getting Memphis' best this weekend. That should make for a tough, competitive game.

"In this day and age, with the scholarships limits, there's good players on every team," Fulmer said. "Usually, it comes down to a few plays that make the difference, and you've got to be the one to make those plays."

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