There are some weekends within a college football season when a program can improve at the expense of an inferior opponent, a foe of equal talent or against a superior roster.
Then there is that rare occurrence when the gauge can be the nation's very best team, an opportunity Tennessee has this week with the arrival of No. 1 Georgia. The Bulldogs opened this season with a 10-3 downing of six-time defending Atlantic Coast Conference champion Clemson before blistering their first seven Southeastern Conference opponents by the average score of 40-7.
Georgia's most recent rout was Saturday's 43-6 shellacking of Missouri, which was 40-3 midway through the third quarter.
"It's a big ball game, but you've got to treat it like every Saturday," Tennessee senior left guard Jerome Carvin said in a news conference. "You've got to be locked in, and you've got to be focused. Regardless of who it is, we've got to play our plays.
"You can't get overzealous of what you want to do. You've just got to do your job."
Saturday marks the first time Tennessee has ever faced a top-ranked Georgia, but a No. 1 opponent is nothing new for the Volunteers. Alabama was No. 1 when pummeling Tennessee during the 2016-19 seasons by scores of 49-10, 45-7, 58-21 and 35-13.
The Vols won their very first game against a top-ranked team, upsetting LSU 14-13 in 1959, and a 38-20 surprise drubbing of Auburn in 1985 improved their record to 2-2 against No. 1 programs. Since slowing Bo Jackson and the Tigers, however, Tennessee has lost 12 straight times against teams at the top.
Tennessee nearly upset Alabama in 2009, falling 12-10, but the seven losses to No. 1 teams since have each transpired by at least three touchdowns.
"Back when I was 16 or 17 and decided I was going to come to the University of Tennessee, I wanted to knock some No. 1s off and become No. 1," fifth-year senior defensive tackle Matthew Butler said. "Obviously that's not exactly how it went, but that's what we're planning to do - knock a No. 1 off.
"That's not a billboard statement or anything like that. I think everybody who plays a No. 1 team wants to knock them off, so that's what we're going to do."
Georgia has yet to blink or come close to blinking this season, but the Vols are hoping they can add to an autumn's worth of upsets that have included Stanford over Oregon, Texas A&M over Alabama, and Purdue over Iowa and Michigan State.
VOLS VS. NO. 1
1959 — defeated LSU 14-131979 — lost to Alabama 27-171980 — lost to Alabama 27-01985 — defeated Auburn 38-201990 — lost to Notre Dame 34-291994 — lost to Florida 31-02002 — lost to Miami 26-32009 — lost to Florida 23-132009 — lost to Alabama 12-102011 — lost to LSU 38-72012 — lost to Alabama 44-132013 — lost to Alabama 45-102016 — lost to Alabama 49-102017 — lost to Alabama 45-72018 — lost to Alabama 58-212019 — lost to Alabama 35-13
"You see it every week," senior cornerback Alontae Taylor said. "You look at the Purdue-Michigan State game. Michigan State was No. 3, and Purdue was not ranked, and they did what they did. Any team can get beat any week.
"They're a great team, but at the end of the day, it will be about who comes out and plays the hardest and plays for 60 minutes."
The Vols proved worthy in big games last month, falling 31-26 to current No. 12 Ole Miss and playing current No. 3 Alabama to within 31-24 before fading in a 52-24 defeat. Yet the Bulldogs have been a different breed this season, which has saddled Tennessee players with matchup issues like never before.
A perfect example is Carvin, who must help the Vols somehow slow the nation's No. 1 nose tackle, Jordan Davis.
"He's a big dude sitting in there," Carvin said. "He can move with that size, and it creates a lot of challenges up front. We've got to be able to tame him, and we've got to be able to move him.
"We've got to find ways to run the ball, because we know they're going to put him in there for those early downs."
The Bulldogs have won nine of the past 11 meetings against Tennessee to take a 25-23-2 series lead.
This is Georgia's most dominant stretch in this SEC East rivalry, having won the past four meetings by at least 23 points, but Tennessee has the longest streak in the series with nine consecutive triumphs. The Vols won the 1989 meeting and added eight more from 1992-99 once the league went to divisional play following the additions of Arkansas and South Carolina.
"At times it's been lopsided," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. "I know when I played here that it was lopsided their way, because we could never beat them. They've had ups and downs, but Josh (Heupel) is doing a really good job of getting the players who are there to buy in, and they've bought in."
Taylor provided some colorful commentary when asked to recount his 56-yard interception return for a touchdown Saturday night at the expense of Kentucky quarterback Will Levis.
"When the ball came, in my head I was like, 'Is he dumb?'" Taylor said. "He just threw the ball to me."
Odds and ends
Georgia's Stetson Bennett and Tennessee's Hendon Hooker are among the 20 semifinalists for the Davey O'Brien Award, with Bennett also among the 10 semifinalists for the Burlsworth Trophy, which is awarded annually to college football's top player who began his career as a walk-on. ... Smart after Tuesday's practice on Bennett during his walk-on days: "When he was here early on, we knew he was a good player. He was in a room with Jake Fromm and Justin Fields, and he competed and took notes."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.