KNOXVILLE - Football life in the Southeastern Conference is either hard or harder.
Recent Octobers have been the latter for Tennessee.
The Volunteers haven't won a game in the calendar's 10th month since Lane Kiffin beat 21st-ranked South Carolina on a cold, rainy Halloween night in 2009, but their October O-fer might have as much to do with the schedule maker as the program's rebuilding situation.
The Vols faced three ranked teams in a four-week October stretch in 2010 and played No. 1, No. 2, No. 14 and the eventual East Division champion on consecutive weeks last season. Saturday night's game at 19th-ranked Mississippi State is the second of four straight games against ranked opponents in a five-week stretch.
"I love them," Tennessee junior linebacker Jacques Smith declared with a smile. "This is what I live for. This is the heart of the schedule, and I think everyone looks forward to this."
In the SEC, everyone looks forward to such matchups because they have to look forward to them. Such is life when the league puts seven teams in the rankings as it has done consistently the past few years. Multiple ranked teams will appear on the schedule, many of them on consecutive Saturdays.
The Vols' Octobers have been brutal, but stretches like that are more the norm than the exception in the unforgiving SEC.
"That's why I came here, to play against the best," defensive lineman Maurice Couch said. "I think being in this conference, it's expected you're going to play tough teams week in and week out. You just have to strap it on and get ready."
Alabama played four ranked teams in a five-game stretch in 2010, encountered three ranked teams in four weeks on its national-title run last season and faces three teams currently ranked after visiting the Vols next week. Ole Miss played ranked teams on three consecutive Saturdays each of the last two Octobers. Arkansas and Kentucky faced similar stretches last season.
Florida faced a stretch last October similar to what tests Tennessee this month. The Gators played third-ranked Alabama, top-ranked LSU and 24th-ranked Auburn before their open date and lost to Georgia to cap a four-game losing streak. The losses came by a combined 73 points.
Texas A&M and Kentucky are in the middle of four games against ranked teams in five-week stretches, and LSU's home date Saturday with No. 3 South Carolina is the second in what could be a five-week run of ranked opponents.
Winning one early in one of those stretches, though, can serve as a springboard into the rest of it, especially for a Tennessee team looking for its first win against a ranked team since that black-clad triumph nearly three years ago.
"This is a big time for our team, and I told them that," coach Derek Dooley said after Tuesday's practice. "It's time to go out there and start acting on the lessons we've learned in these earlier games."
Stretches like Georgia's the past two years (just six ranked teams total) and South Carolina's last season (just two ranked opponents) are the exceptions in the SEC, but the schedules obviously aren't in the hands of the players and coaching staffs.
"We don't have a choice," Tennessee tight end Mychal Rivera said.
What the Vols and their SEC counterparts do have, on a seemingly weekly basis, are chances to play and win big games. Dooley and other coaches typically downplay the do-or-die nature assigned to almost every game, but Tennessee's third-year coach called his team's matchup with the unbeaten and untested Bulldogs a "big step" that needs to be taken.
"They've never really been uptight or nervous," he said, "but there comes a point where, OK, we're learning these lessons each week, let's convert them into some wins. We all know we need to do that. This is a good opportunity on the road against a good football team who's got a lot of swagger right now."
Beating one ranked opponent can help a team take a little swagger into another such matchup right around the corner.
"It would be very important," Smith said. "It's crucial for us to get a win right now. We've just got to go out there and finish. I think we all know it. I think everyone knows it. I think our fan base knows it.
"It's out there: Tennessee needs to win a ballgame, a good ballgame. We know that we're capable of doing it. Other people we know that we're capable of doing it. We just need to go out there, play our ball and minimize our mistakes."