KNOXVILLE - Double-digit underdogs in six of its first eight games, the University of Tennessee football team is nearly a three-touchdown favorite heading into tonight's game at Memphis.
Yes, Memphis has been that bad.
The Tigers (1-7, 0-5 Conference USA) are statistically, across the board, one of the worst teams in major college football. They've lost their past four games - to Tulsa, Louisville, Southern Miss and Houston - by a combined 201-43 score.
"It's obvious ... our struggles, especially in the past four football games," first-year Memphis coach Larry Porter said. "Losing does have a momentum of its own."
All indications point toward the Volunteers having a rare easy time tonight. Not quite, UT's players and coaches have said all week. The Vols are 2-6, 0-5 in the Southeastern Conference, against one of the nation's toughest schedules.
"I think it's best that we treat them like they are the better team," UT senior wide receiver Gerald Jones said. "We don't have room for error. We're not like Alabama or LSU. We can't go to Memphis and make five or six mistakes and still win comfortably.
"We need to go out there and we need to play as hard as we can and treat them like they are the better team."
"Every college football game's a tough game, especially when you're 2-6," senior defensive end Gerald Williams said. "We haven't been good enough to take anybody lightly."
UT has a slight chance of becoming bowl eligible with a 5-7 record, thanks to the NCAA authorizing more bowl spots than teams with six wins. Regardless, six wins - meaning a November sweep of Memphis, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky - ensures one more game for the Vols' seniors and one more month of desperately needed practice for their underclassmen.
Few programs have dominated November like UT the past few decades, and this is without question the easiest stretch on this team's schedule. But first-year Vols coach Derek Dooley hasn't seen enough from his team to "guarantee success against anybody."
"I know there's a lot of talk about November and Tennessee in November and all those things, but we're not really playing November," Dooley said on Monday. "We have Memphis this week, and all of our focus needs to be on Memphis. They're struggling the same way we're struggling, so it's two teams searching for a good win. I expect them to play their best, because they have a lot of Tennessee guys on the team, and I know they'll be ready to go.
"Obviously, it's important that we go out there and play four quarters and finish a game on the road."
UT didn't finish last week at South Carolina, but the Vols got closer than they'd gotten on the road since their crushing, last-play, "LSU Redoux" loss in Baton Rouge on Oct. 2.
True freshman quarterback Tyler Bray - a lanky, big-armed, 6-foot-6 Californian - will start tonight for the first time in his career. He earned that right by overcoming an interception returned for a touchdown to throw two touchdown passes and rally the Vols last week in Columbia.
For the first time in weeks, genuine optimism was easy to spot every day this week around the UT football complex.
Senior tight end Luke Stocker, who caught his first touchdown pass of the season last week, said there is "definitely" still a sense of hope in the locker room.
"Any time you're getting better each week, you're giving yourself a better chance to win each week," Stocker said. "We've played some great teams on our schedule up to this point, and if we keep progressing and getting better and better, I think we can take care of our business the rest of the way.
"It's cut-throat time. There's no other answer to it. We have to win these four games. It's kind of how we're looking at it and how we're approaching it. It's must-wins for us."
Contact Wes Rucker at firstname.lastname@example.org or 865-851-9739. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wesruckerCTFP or Facebook at www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.