Former Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin didn't have to stay on the job long to figure out the significance of beating Georgia.
Before the teams played in 2009, Kiffin stressed to his Vols the recruiting value of Georgia. He vowed that he would never lose to the Bulldogs.
He didn't. The Vols routed the Bulldogs 45-19 in what turned out to be Kiffin's one-night stand against Georgia.
As important as that game was to Kiffin, Saturday's UT-Georgia matchup might be even more important to his successor, Derek Dooley.
If Tennessee hopes to better last year's 6-6 regular-season record, this is the game it must win. Up next are LSU, Alabama and South Carolina in succession. In mid-November, there's a challenging trip to Arkansas.
All of those opponents are more formidable than the Bulldogs. Moreover, UT gets Georgia at home.
The long-term advantage also is as evident under Dooley as it was in Kiffin's fling with the Vols and Phillip Fulmer's 16-year run as UT's head coach. Tennessee needs to recruit well in Georgia. Its chances will be enhanced by what it does on the field.
If the Vols win Saturday, that would give them four victories in their last six games with the Bulldogs. And it would send a clear message to recruits, especially when you consider the recent overall track records of the programs.
Basically, the Vols have beaten Georgia — as their former quarterback Casey Clausen might say — with one hand tied behind their back. They have changed coaches twice and have had six or more losses three times in the last five years, yet they're 3-2 against Georgia, which finished No. 3 nationally in 2007 — and still lost to Tennessee by 21 points.
Since the end of their disastrous 2008 season, the Vols — despite all their coaching turmoil — have almost the same record as Georgia. In the last two-plus seasons, UT is 16-14 following Saturday's victory over Buffalo; Georgia is 17-14 after beating Mississippi State.
There's not much difference in their current recruiting status, either. ESPN ranks Georgia 16th and UT 17th.
Recruits would be foolish to base recruiting decisions on the outcome of a single game. But a UT victory Saturday would resonate beyond one game. It would reinforce a perception: that the Vols are gradually making progress; the Bulldogs are losing ground.
There's a more immediate factor, too. Although the Vols have a winning record against Georgia over the last five years, Dooley's one game against the Bulldogs was a 41-14 defeat.
A year later, a victory would signal progress. But a defeat would leave the Vols 0-2 in SEC play and likely make them underdogs for their next four conference games.
Those extreme possibilities make this Dooley's biggest game as a Vol.