Derek Dooley stood on a stage in Hoover, Ala., in July and delivered a sweeping statement of self-assurance. Shoulders back, chin up, the third-year Tennessee coach declared to the rest of the SEC, "You're not going to have Tennessee to kick around anymore."
That proclamation set the table for the 2012 season. Now Dooley and the Vols have to eat at it.
Analyzed and scrutinized despite a 3-1 start, Tennessee has reached the gauntlet of its schedule.
It starts with No. 5 Georgia (4-0) today (TV: WVLT, 3:30 p.m.) at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga. After a bye next weekend, games at No. 21 Mississippi State, home against No. 1 Alabama and at No. 6 South Carolina await.
Since beating South Carolina in 2009, the Vols are 0-6 against Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina and have been outscored 191-69.
"This is a new football team and this football team is not going to be held hostage for the things that have gone on at the University of Tennessee over the past four years," Dooley announced earlier this week.
That said, reality is a picture painted by the numbers. Dooley is 4-13 in SEC play, 1-7 on the road and 0-11 versus ranked opponents. Rhetoric can't change that. Winning can.
"That's our next step — we're going to have to go out and perform and beat one of these teams," Dooley said.
Georgia will be tough to beat. Led by the arm of quarterback Aaron Murray, the feet of running back Todd Gurley and the tenacity of linebacker Jarvis Jones, the Bulldogs have won their first four games by an average of 31 points.
Oddsmakers list Tennessee as a two-touchdown underdog.
While the Vols sloshed to a lethargic closer-than-it-looks 47-26 victory over Akron last Saturday, Georgia hacksawed Vanderbilt in a 48-3 romp.
After beating Vandy, Georgia coach Mark Richt provided his players with a UT history lesson.
It was 2004. Georgia had impressively marched over LSU in a 45-16 win. The next week, some young Vols handed overconfident Georgia an unexpected 19-14 loss.
"I told them that this situation just reminded me of that season," Richt said. "Tennessee came in with a freshman quarterback (Erik Ainge) and beat us, and I wanted to help them understand it could happen.
Though he's not a freshman quarterback, Sanford Stadium and its 93,000 fans will be another SEC proving ground for UT junior Tyler Bray.
In 11 career starts, Bray has thrown for 2,089 yards, 21 touchdowns and one interception against six non-league opponents. In five SEC starts, he's thrown for 1,200 yards, eight touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Looking for his first top-25 win as UT's starter two weeks ago against Florida, Bray threw a pair of costly picks. With the game on the line late, his final seven passes fell incomplete and UT's final three drives resulted in minus-8 yards.
The loss has lingered around the program like a dense fog.
"I won't say we got scared (against Florida), but we kind of disappeared," Bray said earlier this week. "We weren't ourselves."
While Tennessee lives and dies with its passing game, Georgia's attack is as balanced as a trapeze artist.
Something's got to give. One team will do the pushing.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/BFQuinn