That was UT's fifth straight Georgia Dome setback dating to 2001 when the Vols were upset by the Tigers, one game short of the SEC Championship and a Rose Bowl date for their second shot at a national title in four years.
There's something to be said for staying in contention for titles and UT has done that with enough regularity to call it consistent success, albeit short of the standards established over a decade span from 1989 to 1998. The problem inherent in not winning an SEC title since ‘98 or appearing in a BCS bowl is there aren't a lot of high-profile victories which players of these classes can readily associate with the team.
The problem was compounded by one-sided road losses last season to Cal, Florida and Alabama. The Vols played better on the road from that point scoring a victory in Lexington to capture the SEC East Division crown, but couldn't follow up against an LSU team that was ripe for an upset before a pair of fourth quarter turnovers derailed UT's bid to topple a Tiger squad that would go on to win the national championship.
While the importance of season openers is often overstated due to the months of anticipation that precedes them, the impression they tend to make with prospects can be profound, and not only with the high school seniors but the upcoming juniors that will comprise the Class of 2010. That's particularly so when it's a network telecast as prominent as the Tennessee vs. UCLA intersectional match-up is and in an iconic schedule slot.
Last season's early losses to the Bears and Gators dealt the Vols a damaging blow with upper tier prospects, and they finished the recruiting season with only two prospects rated as high as four stars. Because UT has enjoyed early success in securing the Class of 2009, it is not as vulnerable as last season. However Phillip Fulmer and staff will likely need this win on Monday to finish with a top 10 class.
Furthermore, it's essentially a first-impression game for most of the juniors Tennessee is recruiting. Which means if they have an offer from the Vols odds are they'll be tuned into Monday's telecast. Like the big fish the Vols are still angling for in the Class of 2009, they will be watching the new offense and picturing a role for themselves. They will watch the defense to see how close it is to the video version they've played with their friends.
If Tennessee has designs on top ten finishes, big bowl riches, SEC titles, a return to elite status and premier recruiting classes to die in L.A. isn't an option.