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Tennessee Athletics photo by Caleb Jones / Tennessee safety Trevon Flowers (1) and linebacker Quavaris Crouch (27) feasted on Missouri last Saturday for the program's eighth straight win dating back to last October, but a ninth consecutive triumph would have to come at the expense of No. 3 Georgia in Athens.

Tennessee's eight-game winning streak that started last October certainly qualifies as a current feel-good story in Southeastern Conference football.

Claiming a ninth consecutive contest would open every eye nationally.

The Volunteers have two victories apiece over Missouri and South Carolina during this run of success, as well as triumphs over the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Indiana. They have earned a No. 14 ranking in this week's Associated Press poll, but their schedule stiffens significantly with Saturday's trip to No. 3 Georgia in a matchup of 2-0 teams.

It will be the 28th game of Jeremy Pruitt's career as Tennessee's coach and the first legitimate measuring stick of how his Vols stack up against the SEC elite.

"In our program, we've continued to improve over the last three years, and we've got to continue to do that," Pruitt said this week. "We're nowhere where we want to be yet. I think Georgia has won the East now three years in a row, and for them to do that speaks a lot to where their program is, and it's where we're trying to get."

Georgia has incredible talent and stability in Kirby Smart's fifth season, with the Bulldogs having compiled a sparkling 38-7 record since his 8-5 debut year of 2016. The upgrade under Smart was almost overnight, as his first Georgia team ventured to the Liberty Bowl and his second squad squared off against Alabama in the championship game of the College Football Playoff.

Smart has witnessed the implosion of Tennessee's program in 2017 under former coach Butch Jones and the rebuilding efforts under Pruitt, with the Bulldogs having capitalized with three straight series triumphs by the average score of 41-9. He realizes a vastly improved team is headed to Athens.

"The line of scrimmage is probably where it sticks out most," Smart said. "Their offensive line is big and physical, and they have good players with good experience. They've recruited well. It's the same with their defensive line. That's where you get beat before the game starts in the SEC — if you don't have enough guys across the line of scrimmage, and I think that they do.

"They do a really good job on both sides of the ball in terms of line-of-scrimmage play."

Smart has pointed out that Tennessee's talent and experience in the trenches make the Vols more of a threat than Auburn, which entered Sanford Stadium ranked No. 7 last Saturday night but was no match for the Bulldogs in a 27-6 loss.

The Vols are coming off the most impressive showing of their streak, having dominated Missouri in every phase during last Saturday's 35-12 rout in Neyland Stadium. Tennessee players have been providing consistent answers this week when asked about Saturday's challenge and the measuring stick aspect.

This is the first top-15 showdown involving Tennessee since cracks in the Jones foundation became evident during a 49-10 loss to visiting Alabama in 2016.

"We come out with the mentality that it's just another game, because we try to give our all in every single game that we have," sophomore linebacker Henry To'o To'o said. "That's something that Coach Pruitt harps on and tells us every week. This is a big team we're playing, but we've got to have the same mentality the entire season no matter who we're playing."

Said senior running back Ty Chandler: "They've got a tough defense, and they're known for that. I think everybody is looking forward to it. As long as we focus on the details and do our jobs, I feel like we can be great, and that's what I'm looking forward to."

Of course, a year's worth of perspective reflects that a measuring stick game is better than a must-win contest against a Football Championship Subdivision opponent. Tennessee opened last season by giving away games against Georgia State and Brigham Young, with a 45-0 shellacking of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga serving as a respite before additional losses to Florida and Georgia.

"When the season started last year and didn't go the way we wanted, we knew that we were still headed in the right direction," Pruitt said. "We turned the ball over a lot last year early on, and, as we corrected that and continued to gain confidence, our play improved. Our kids are going to work hard to continue to improve.

"This is a great opportunity for us Saturday, but we're going to play a bunch of other games after this game, so we've got to continue to work hard to improve every week."

 

Shifting Tide

Alabama's football game Saturday night at Ole Miss has been pushed back from 6 to 7:30 Eastern to better avoid remnants from Hurricane Delta. The contest still will be televised by ESPN.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

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