"The Auburn Tigers are the most important Tigers on our schedule this week," UT head coach Bruce Pearl said today. "That is an SEC game. That game is all about doing something that hasn't been done in 41 years."
The Vol boss isn't going to insult the fan base by trying to downplay the importance of the Tennessee-Memphis game. He's just determined to play up the significance of the Auburn game. The Vols, 23-2 overall and 10-1 in Southeastern Conference play, are in position to win the program's first outright conference title since 1966-67.
Obviously, none of the current Vols were born when UT last won an undisputed league championship. Heck, some of their parents weren't born yet. Ending that 41-year drought is a major emphasis in practice this week.
"Yeah, it is," Pearl said. "It's hitting home. It really is. Forty-one years is more than most of our lifetimes."
The Vol coach is truly an expert at using history to motivate his team. In the days leading up to Tennessee's Jan. 29 game at Alabama, he goaded his players by constantly reminding them that UT was 1-16 in its previous 17 visits to Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa. Thus inspired, the Vols notched a 93-86 victory.
"I saw what it meant to them when we went to Alabama," Pearl recalled. "The guys were sitting there talking to each other on the bench about 16 of 17 losses at Coleman Coliseum. It MATTERED to them."
The fact Tennessee has gone 41 years without an outright SEC title apparently matters to the Vols, as well.
"I think it does matter to them a lot," Pearl said. "It requires us to understand that each time (UT wins an SEC game) we get closer to something that is very, very special. It's something we want to bring home."
Since the high-flying Vols are 23-2 and riding a 29-game home-floor winning streak, obviously there is a chance they will overlook Auburn, which stands 13-10 overall and 3-7 in SEC play. Pearl is determined to prevent that.
"All you can do is get ready to play every opponent and do the best you can," he said. "It is a long season, and these guys are young, so they're going to handle success a little differently than somebody who's been doing it for a lot of years. My job is to try and get them to handle the success we've had."
Pearl readily admits that playing No. 1 Memphis Saturday at the FedEx Forum will provide an exciting atmosphere and potentially mind-boggling rewards.
"The game against Memphis on Saturday will have other implications," the Vol coach said. "It will have seeding implications. Being on College GameDay and having so many national media there, there'll be national implications as far as where our program's at and the potential for a No. 1 seed and all that.
"But I don't think you can compare any of that stuff to 41 years of SEC basketball."