Coming off a 5-7 season in 2008, the Vols appeared mired in mediocrity when they staggered to a 2-3 start in 2009. Tennessee righted itself, however, and has played exceptional football since - trouncing Georgia (45-19), South Carolina (31-13) and Memphis (56-28) and losing a squeaker at then-top-ranked Alabama (12-10).
Now 5-4 overall and 2-3 in SEC play, the fired-up Vols are excited about the prospect of winning out and earning a mid-level bowl bid.
"We're not playing for an SEC championship but the way we practice and play you wouldn't tell that we're not playing for one," junior defensive end Chris Walker said. "Every day we try to play like a championship team, trying to be a championship team, because that's what we're going to be eventually around here."
Coming off a 9-4 record in 2008, Ole Miss was supposed to be a championship team this year. The Rebels have grossly underachieved, however. Like UT, they have a 2-3 conference record. Moreover, their 6-3 overall record includes two wins against Football Championship Subdivision teams that don't count toward bowl eligibility.
Whereas Ole Miss is a team that has wilted in the face of lofty expectations, Tennessee is a team that has resurrected itself after being given up for dead in September. Whereas the Rebels are looking to save face, the Vols are looking to finish with a flourish.
"Our guys play loose but, at the same time, we're disciplined," head coach Lane Kiffin said. "That's how we treat our guys - like professionals. Our guys don't play tight, and that's why they've played well for the most part.
"We don't ever make a game into a huge game. And that's why we don't experience letdowns. If you do that (create a must-win atmosphere) then you experience a letdown."
Reason No. 2 to pick Tennessee: Now that quarterback Jonathan Crompton has go-to receivers Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore healthy, the Vols are making the kind of plays that stretch an opposing defense.
"We need to be explosive," Kiffin said. "We love running the ball - love grinding it out - but if we're going to be a championship team we've got to be explosive. We've got to make people scared that we can throw the ball downfield and make plays everywhere."
Reason No. 3 to pick Tennessee: The Vols play better on the road than they do at home. They gave top-ranked Florida a real battle before losing 23-13 in Gainesville and had top-ranked Alabama on the ropes before bowing 12-10 in Tuscaloosa.
"We like playing on the road in front of a hostile environment," Walker said. "I think our whole team gets fired up by stuff like that. People not liking us helps us play our best. We haven't gotten a road win but we've been there in two tight games on the road, so we're going to get it together this week."
Reason No. 4 to pick Tennessee: Assistant head coach Ed Orgeron was fired as the Rebels' head man just two years ago. You KNOW he'll have the Vols pumped for this game.