They are set to face the No. 1 team in the AP and Coaches Polls as part of the highest combined ranked regular season game in Tennessee football history. Meanwhile, the Vols themselves are No. 1 in the College Football Playoff.
Despite remaining vague all year, Josh Heupel didn’t hide from that fact. He acknowledged Tuesday night on ESPN and at Wednesday’s SEC teleconference that they addressed the matter.
“I talked to the kids earlier on Monday that those things are great for your fans to be excited about and pay attention to, and as a program, you work to put yourself in the position to be thought highly of,” he said. “At the end of the day, as competitors it’s all about the next one.”
For Heupel, accepting and appreciating the ranking doesn’t have to conflict with taking each game seriously. It won’t be hard to combine those two factors Saturday.
Facing the Georgia Bulldogs, the defending national champions, is big enough for Tennessee football. It’s being dubbed the Game of the Century, but Heupel, while appreciating the ranking, isn’t taking the bait.
“We’ve been pretty busy game-planning here,” he said. “This is a great opponent that we’re playing and excited that we get an opportunity to play in a game that means a lot, that has a lot of attention and obviously will be a great environment there in Athens.”
This situation isn’t new for Heupel either. The year he led the Oklahoma Sooners to the national championship, they beat the No. 1 ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers while they were ranked No. 3.
That was 29 years after what was officially dubbed the Game of the Century, a No. 1 vs. No. 2 Nebraska-Oklahoma showdown in 1971. Nebraska won that one en route to the national title.
“That game was a big part of the history of the University, but also the rivalry there,” Heupel said. “Before we played them in October of 2000, people were comparing those two games to each other.”
Another similar situation to that year was how quickly Heupel proved he can turn things around as a player and as a coach. He won the national title in 2000 his and Bob Stoops’ second year at OU.
Before either arrived, OU hadn’t reached the top 25 since 1995 and hadn’t finished with a winning record or in the top 25 since 1993. Heupel noted the similarities of how both teams improved over the course of the year.
“As the season went on we just continued to get better,” he said of that 2000 OU team. “Didn’t play really good football, probably, until October, and we continued to get better throughout the course of the season. There are parallels to that just talking about a program that was fragmented in some ways when we first got here, similar to when I first got there, but I think a clear vision and everybody jumping in the boat together and pulling as hard as they can and competing. This group continues to grow and continues to get better.”
Because of that experience, Heupel is clearly approaching this game as an opportunity and is highly aware of what it takes to win such a game. That’s a huge benefit to Tennessee football.
“Preparation up until this point has been really good,” he said. “We’ve just got to finish the week out and then get ready to go play for 60 minutes and lay it all out on the line.”