KNOXVILLE -- Southeastern Conference fans love tossing around the cliche that Pac-10 football is soft.
Several future millionaires on UCLA's defense beg to differ with that stereotype.
Volunteers coach Lane Kiffin suggested earlier this week that several Bruins defenders would start anywhere in the country. It's nearly impossible to argue that, at least in four cases.
Defensive tackle Brian Price, middle linebacker Reggie Carter, cornerback Alterraun Verner and free safety Rahim Morris have received attention typically doled out to Pac-10 offensive performers.
Price, a junior All-America candidate and likely first-round NFL draft pick, had 12 tackles for lost yardage in the Bruins' last nine games of 2008.
Carter, a senior who is on several preseason award watch lists, has 199 career tackles and has recorded as many as 20 stops in a single game.
Verner, a senior whom Kiffin called "one of the best corners in the country," was on several preseason All-America teams. Much more than a sticky cover man, Verner has registered 209 career tackles.
Morris, just a sophomore, is the reigning national defensive player of the week following three interceptions in Saturday's 33-14 victory over San Diego State.
"I have a lot of respect for (UCLA's) whole defense," Vols offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. "Usually, you can watch a defense and go, 'Their D-line is their strength, or their linebackers, or their secondary,' but you can't here. All three of these groups are very solid.
"This is going to be a big challenge for us."
Chaney's players don't disagree.
"We've been watching film, and at each group they've got great players," said UT offensive lineman Cody Pope, a sophomore from San Diego. "They've got a great three-technique defensive lineman (in Price), a great middle linebacker (in Carter), and they're really good in the secondary.
"Everyone on their defense is good, so we've definitely got to be focused."
UCLA's defense as a whole hasn't been the most efficient, though. Despite finishing a respectable 47th out of 119 major NCAA Division I teams last season in total defense, the Bruins ranked 85th by allowing 29 points per game. A 59-0 self-destruction at BYU and a 41-20 loss at California didn't help those figures.
Here's another historical fact that doesn't bode well for the Bruins on Saturday. Pac-10 teams are just 3-16 on the road against SEC opponents since 1980. That's done nothing to squelch SEC fans' smack talk for the better part of three decades.
First-year UT head coach Lane Kiffin, a former Southern California assistant, admitted he's already heard "a bunch" of Pac-10 stereotypes over the years -- that the league is largely a collection of pass-happy, offensive-oriented programs that play softer football than their cross-country counterparts.
Kiffin scoffs at that notion, at least from personal experience. His Trojans humiliated Auburn and Arkansas, scoring a combined 120 points against the Razorbacks in 2005 and 2006.
"The first thing we would think out there when everybody would say, 'Well, there's no defense out here and there's all the defense down in the South,' was ... we weren't really buying into it," Kiffin said.
Neither are these Bruins.
"I think they feel like we're in the WAC," Moore told the Los Angeles Daily News earlier this week. "They think we're soft. I just feel like you can't label nobody as soft until you play them."
Actually, UT and UCLA played each other last season. Few players, fans and coaches from either side have forgotten the outcome, either.
"The Pac-10's definitely a tough league, just like the SEC," Pope said. "We're all tough leagues. We all play good football. At the end of the day, it's not about the X's and the O's but the Jimmys and the Joes. Whoever's lining up against you, hopefully you're tougher than them.
"It doesn't matter about the league. It just matters if we come out and execute our game plan. ... Obviously, we didn't do that last year against these guys."
Kiffin's Trojans learned not to overlook their crosstown archrivals, either. The Bruins kept Southern Cal out of the national championship game in 2006 by stifling the Trojans in a 13-9 stunner.
A few current Bruins played a part in that game, which snapped Southern Cal's NCAA-record streak of 63 consecutive games scoring at least 20 points.
UT senior guard Jacques McClendon said UCLA's defense is a "force to be reckoned with ... especially if you take them lightly."
"I mean, you know, look at us last year," McClendon said. "We didn't execute and we played pretty bad, but you have to give them credit. They won the game. It's as simple as that.
"And if we come go out there Saturday and play that bad again, they could beat us again. We've got to execute, because they've got good players all over that defense."