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Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee fifth-year senior receiver Brandon Johnson believes the No. 18 Volunteers better be ready for visiting Kentucky because there are no easy games in the Southeastern Conference.

Tennessee senior defensive tackle Matthew Butler was asked on a Zoom call this week if the optimism surrounding last Saturday's trip to Georgia had been replaced by a loss of confidence following the 44-21 ambush inside Sanford Stadium.

"No," was Butler's terse response.

The No. 18 Volunteers have proven this football season that they are better than South Carolina and Missouri but not in the class of No. 3 Georgia. Tennessee still has a chance to be an upper-echelon member in the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division, even possibly claiming the role of Georgia's chief challenger, but disposing of Kentucky (1-2) at noon Saturday is a must if the Vols are to attain that status.

Tennessee has won 33 of the past 35 series meetings and has downed the Wildcats 17 straight times in Neyland Stadium, streaks that have become more impressive given that Kentucky is 19-10 since the start of the 2018 season.

"When you look at this game, it's a great opportunity for us to play against a really good football team," Tennessee third-year coach Jeremy Pruitt said. "When you look at Kentucky over the last four or five years, they continue to get better every year. They play together. They've played in a lot of close games, and they've won a lot of close games over the last couple of years.

"I think we'll find out a little bit about who we are."

There are mirroring aspects to these two programs, and it's more than their matching 8-5 records last season. Both the Vols and Wildcats returned eight starters on each side of the ball from a year ago, and both Pruitt and Kentucky counterpart Mark Stoops have noticeably strengthened their rosters within the trenches.

"I definitely can see that," Stoops said. "It's been well documented through the years that we've tried to become more physical and recruit longer and more physical players on both sides of the ball and to work hard to develop them. You can certainly see that in Tennessee.

"They recruit at a very high level and are a very physical team."

Pruitt said his Vols must bring fight and perseverance to Neyland Stadium "because it will be one of those games."

Tennessee has swept the past two series meetings against the Wildcats, including a 24-7 thumping two years ago when Kentucky was No. 12 in the country. The Vols entered that game having dumped Charlotte the week before, while the Wildcats had been defeated by Georgia at Kroger Field in a game that determined the East champion.

Neither team was taxed entering last year's 17-13 Tennessee win in Lexington, with the Wildcats having been off the previous week and with the Vols having whipped the University of Alabama at Birmingham 30-7, but now it's the Vols who must get off the mat after what transpired in Athens.

"They've got a lot of athletes on their defense and have a really good defense," Vols senior receiver Brandon Johnson said. "This is the SEC, so nobody is an easy game. Everybody is a difficult team to play."

Said Butler: "If you don't bring intensity to every SEC game, you're going to lose all of them."

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

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