Sure, MTSU gave Alabama fits before bowing 39-34 last Saturday in Tuscaloosa. But Tennessee is the No. 4 team in America and Middle is the ''little brother'' from across the state. How do you get fired up about playing your little brother?
UT's players say they aren't overlooking the Blue Raiders but that's what they're SUPPOSED to say. Whether they really mean it is anyone's guess.
Vol center Scott Wells believes MTSU's performance against Alabama was enough to get the attention of Tennessee's players.
''Definitely,'' he said. ''They're used to playing the speed of the SEC. They played Florida well for a half last year, then fell apart the second half. A couple of their guys played at my high school -- Josh Willoughby (RG) and Jerry Vanderpool (DE) -- and ever since they got on our schedule they've been talking about this game. They tell me they're going to beat us. I tell them we'll see.''
Certainly, MTSU has plenty working in its favor. The Blue Raiders are motivated by being 22-point underdogs. They're motivated by the opportunity to knock off a top-10 team and earn national recognition. They're motivated by the knowledge that they were a play or two away from shocking Alabama last weekend. And they're motivated by knowing that no one expects them to win, so all of the pressure is on Tennessee.
''Definitely,'' Wells said. ''They've got nothing to lose and everything to gain. If they could come into our house and win, it would make their whole season. We know that. They're treating it as a huge bowl game, and we know we've got to play Tennessee football to beat 'em. Nothing else will work.''
Tight end Jason Witten agrees, noting that the Blue Raiders will be as high as a kite when they take the field Saturday evening.
''This could make their season for them,'' he said. ''They're 2 1/2 hours away and they're coming off a tough loss, so I'm sure they're going to be ready to play.''
The question is: Will TENNESSEE be ready to play?
''I think this football team knows MTSU is going to be a tough team,'' Witten said. ''They have really talented guys on the defensive side of the ball. The offensive side, too. I believe we're going to have our hands full with them.... We realize how good a football team they are. They should've won that game against Alabama.''
Having grown up in the mid-state area, UT head man Phillip Fulmer is acutely aware how much upsetting the big, bad Vols would mean to MTSU. He understands that the Big Orange will get the Blue Raiders' best shot.
''Most people try to give their best effort against a Tennessee, an Alabama ... those kind of teams,'' Fulmer said.
Then the head man issued a somewhat ominous warning.
''We expect their best effort,'' he said, ''and they should expect OURS.''