KNOXVILLE — It seemed unlikely in August, but Tennessee's daunting schedule increased in difficulty.
Already among the nation's toughest, the slate now may include seven ranked teams by the time the Volunteers navigate it.
"Honestly, I didn't know," tailback Rajion Neal said this week. "I think we've got some surprises that snuck up on us as far as Auburn and Missouri, but I think being in this conference, you can't run from it. It is what it is. There's no way around it.
"I think it's really exciting. It gives you a chance to play on high stages and get yourself out there as far as the team and as an individual. It gives us a chance to compete and see what we've got."
For the second time in three seasons, Tennessee faces teams ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the country. After visiting second-ranked Oregon in September, the Vols play at top-ranked Alabama on Saturday. No. 5 Missouri and No. 11 Auburn, a combined 13-1 this season after going 8-16 in 2012, are up after that.
The Vols were merely hopeful they could compete at Oregon, but the Ducks ran off 52 straight points in a 59-14 win.
Coming off a valiant overtime loss to Georgia and last week's upset of South Carolina, the Vols head to Tuscaloosa to take their best shot at the two-time defending champion Crimson Tide believing they can compete if they play well.
"Where are we going into this game as opposed to Oregon? I think we know a little bit more about ourselves," first-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "I think our players understand it's a great challenge, but it's also a great opportunity. Now ... there's evidence. Before it was blind evidence. It was belief.
"Now our players believe. They can see the results, so I think we have stronger leadership in terms of belief [and] expectations. Our players are really starting to hold themselves to a very high level of accountability. I can see a very, very small culture change starting to happen.
"Have we arrived? Absolutely not. We still have a lot of work. I think we all know that, but we can see small steps of progression. We're progressing, and it's going to be a great challenge. Instead of some small steps this week, we have to take some big steps forward."
Oregon exposed the Vols' shortcomings and how much ground they must make up to become one of the nation's elite programs, but the Vols have made noticeable improvement since then, and it paid off in a big victory last week.
"The way we've played the past few weeks, I think our confidence has grown," quarterback Justin Worley said.
"I definitely think we're a different football team than we were earlier this year."
Alabama, meanwhile, is the same it's been the past five seasons under Nick Saban. The Tide again are loaded with talent and still never beat themselves. A physical offense that wear down opponents or hit on home-run plays has improved since the season opener against Virginia Tech, and Alabama's defense still is suffocating.
Even after allowing 42 points to Texas A&M and 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, the Tide lead the nation in scoring defense (9.7 points per game) and rank fifth in the nation in total defense (275 yards per game).
The Vols' belief and confidence levels are higher than they were, but how much will it help against a machine of a program that's mowed down its last five opponents by a combined score of 201-16?
"I saw a different team in that Georgia locker room at the end of the game," Vols right tackle Ja'Wuan James said. "Everybody's mind flipped. They believed. They believed we could play and compete with everybody and win these types of games. I feel like we went out and showed it versus South Carolina.
"Just to have that confidence from [Jones] and the other coaches, it helps a lot, because if they believe in us to the fullest, then we can believe in ourselves and just go out there and execute."
That aspect certainly was missing when Tennessee last faced one of the nation's elite teams.
"Before it's blind faith. They're believing it, but they're like, 'Coach, we're doing all this, but we're not seeing the wins and losses,'" Jones said. "I said it in here two weeks ago: I see improvement every single day. Sometimes it doesn't occur in wins, but I see it every day.
"I see the mentality changing. I see the attitude, I see the relentlessness. I see the team coming together. I see guys now calling unit meetings on their own and watching film together. The last couple of games, they're starting to see that, 'Hey, you know what, this stuff works.'
"You have to prove yourself. You have to prove yourself week in and week out. Alabama doesn't care what we did last week. We have to go reprove ourselves, and it's going to be a great challenge."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...