"Absolutely," he said. "I guess there's some wild, wacky way we could lose and still get into the championship game – or at least tie for the East – but that's not going to happen. We absolutely HAVE to win this football game to accomplish the goal set every single year – to win a Southeastern Conference championship."
Some UT fans are pointing to wins over Cal, Air Force, Marshall and Memphis as proof the Vols are "back" among the NCAA's top-level teams. David Ligon believes it's way too early to entertain such thoughts.
"We haven't won an SEC game yet this year," he said. "We've played one (Florida) and lost one.... We've had some success against lesser talented teams but this is the next SEC test. This is the second game of the ones that really and truly count, so we've got to get better."
Ligon suggests the Vols must step it up a notch whenever the foe is a league member.
"It's a battle," he said. "It's more of a street fight than these non-conference games you have."
Although beating up on non-conference foes is fun, it is a relatively meaningless exercise in most cases. Beating Georgia, on the other hand, could make quite a statement about the program's direction.
"If we can get a win out of this game it goes a long way to say we're going to beat the Georgias and Floridas," Ligon said. "People may think we're a good team but we really haven't proven it yet."
Tennessee will get plenty of chances to prove its mettle in the next five games – at Georgia, vs. Alabama, at South Carolina, vs. LSU and at Arkansas. Asked for his thoughts on that string of games, Ligon shook his head.
"Wooo," he said. "It'll be a stretch. We had a little warm-up (Games 1 through 5) but the real part of the schedule is here."
Ligon's candor goes beyond topics such as must-win situations and tough schedules. He's just as brutally honest when asked whether he'll be a more assertive leader if senior tackle Arron Sears (sore ankle) can't play much against Georgia.
"I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing … lead by example," Ligon said. "I'm not a big rah-rah talk guy. That's always been a turnoff for me – people talking and never backing up what they say. Unfortunately, I think we've had some leaders like that here."
Ligon subscribes to the theory that actions speak louder than words, especially in terms of leadership.
"Just shut your mouth," he said, "do what the coaches say and hope the younger guys see that and follow it."