Tennessee wide receiver Marquez North (8) makes a one-handed catch late the fourth quarter Saturday. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
KNOXVILLE — Tennessee could be in the midst of the type of gauntlet no team has faced in two decades.
The Volunteers (4-3, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) visit top-ranked Alabama (7-0, 4-0) on Saturday in their third straight game against a Top 25 team. They follow that up by visiting No. 5 Missouri (7-0, 3-0) and hosting No. 11 Auburn (6-1, 3-1) the next two weeks.
If Missouri and Auburn remain in the Top 25 when they face Tennessee, the Vols would become the first team since 1993 to face seven ranked opponents in an eight-game stretch within the same season.
"Every week is a new season." Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "That's the way you have to treat it."
This stretch started Sept. 14 with a 59-14 loss at No. 2 Oregon. The Vols followed that up by losing 31-17 to Florida, ranked 19th at the time. After winning 31-24 over South Alabama, Tennessee lost 34-31 in overtime to Georgia, ranked sixth at the time. Tennessee ended a 19-game losing streak against ranked opponents Saturday with a 23-21 victory over South Carolina, which fell from 11th to 20th after the game.
According to STATS, the last team to play seven ranked teams in the span of eight games was UCLA from November 2007 to September 2008, but that run carried over two seasons. STATS' research shows that no team has faced seven ranked opponents in an eight-game stretch within a single season since Pittsburgh in 1993.
Pittsburgh went 1-7 during that stretch - losing to all the ranked teams it faced - and finished the season 3-8.
"We were highly overscheduled with Ohio State and Notre Dame in the same year with a team that had fallen on hard times and a program that had fallen on hard times," said Johnny Majors, who coached that Pittsburgh team.
Majors, a 1956 Heisman Trophy runner-up at Tennessee who coached the Vols from 1977-92, considers Jones a friend. He believes Jones has his team prepared to handle this kind of stretch.
"This Tennessee team never quits," Majors said. "They play until the game is over, at full speed and with effort. I've been impressed very much with how they've hung in there, and I've been extremely impressed with the last two games."
Opponents also have noticed.
"Obviously, the past couple of weeks they've been playing well," Alabama offensive tackle Austin Shepherd said. "It's exciting to see them play well. It's another SEC team doing good. It'll definitely be a challenge for us, and we're looking forward to it."
Tennessee would play five straight ranked opponents if Auburn and Missouri stay in the Top 25. That kind of string isn't all that unusual, particularly in the SEC.
Arkansas has played four consecutive Top 25 opponents and next faces Auburn on Nov. 2. LSU played five straight ranked foes last season. Tennessee last faced five straight ranked teams in 1991, when it went 3-2 during that stretch and finished 9-3.
"It's a grind, physically and mentally," Tennessee center James Stone said. "But at the same time, knowing you're playing a ranked opponent makes you want to come out there and play that much harder."
Jones knew what he was getting into when he took this job. After the Oregon game, Jones called this the "the most difficult schedule in the history of college football," and that was before it became apparent that Missouri and Auburn were outperforming preseason expectations.
Jones' coaching colleagues know what he's facing. Jones said that after the South Carolina game, a coach sent him a text message that said something to the effect of, "Congratulations on the win. Good luck. Now you get Alabama." He has received similar texts from coaches every week.
"They all understand our schedule and all that," Jones said. "It is what it is. You've got to play it. It's also a great opportunity."
AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Ala., contributed to this report.