The jury's still out on that, however. The Big Orange played very well against two teams that were ranked No. 1 at the time - losing 23-13 at Florida on Sept. 19 and bowing 12-10 at Alabama on Oct. 24. They also played well in a 45-19 blowout of a talented Georgia team on Oct. 10 and in a 31-13 upset of No. 21 South Carolina last weekend.
Conversely, the Vols played their two worst games against lightly regarded non-conference opponents - losing 19-15 to a mediocre UCLA team and struggling to prevail 34-23 over a weak Ohio team. That's a concern, since the Vols are facing another lightly regarded non-conference opponent, the 2-6 Memphis Tigers, this Saturday night.
"It's cause for concern," senior guard Cory Sullins conceded. "I don't want to say that we're worried about playing bad but obviously we didn't play as well as we should've in the UCLA or Ohio games. We're definitely going to have to make sure we're on top of our game this weekend."
The question is: After physically and emotionally taxing battles with nationally ranked Alabama and South Carolina teams, can the Vols get up for a struggling Memphis team?
Sullins thinks they can.
"We just take every game as being as important as the next," he said. "The next game on the schedule is going to be the most important of the year in that respect. Memphis definitely will pose problems, so we definitely can't overlook 'em."
A Tennessee team led by Peyton Manning overlooked Memphis in 1996 and suffered a humbling 21-17 loss at Liberty Bowl Stadium. Sullins, then a nine-year-old growing up in the Middle Tennessee city of Cottontown, hasn't forgotten.
"I just remember watching it on TV when I was a kid," Sullins recalled. "It was a shocking feeling because nobody thought that was going to happen."
Despite Tennessee's struggles vs. UCLA and Ohio, Sullins is confident the Vols will not look past Memphis, even though it is a non-conference foe.
"It's an in-state rivalry, and we're going to take it serious," he said. "We definitely have to win because we don't want to have to face anybody in-state about us losing to Memphis.... We don't want to overlook these guys, and I'm going to take it just like an SEC game, prepare as hard as I can.
"I'm sure the rest of the team will, too."