Tennessee can’t afford to overlook Cincinnati on Saturday in preparation for its trip to Gainesville next week.
Derek Dooley made that perfectly clear during his weekly media luncheon on Monday.
“If we’re looking past anybody we’ve got some serious issues, especially when we watch the film of this team,” Dooley said. “I don’t even need to address that with the team. (Cincinnati), I mean, 33 wins in three years and two BCS (bowl games). What else do we need to say, we’re playing a heck of an opponent?”
And it’s this type of opponent the Volunteers have failed to beat in recent years. Not since the 2007 season-opener versus California has UT won a game against a non-conference opponent from a BCS league, a streak of five straight loses.
Also, the Vols haven’t started a season 2-0 since 2006.
Those two facts alone should make UT fans cautiously optimistic as they enter Neyland Stadium Saturday afternoon.
The Bearcats are no push-overs. UT simply can’t show up and win. That’s what makes it a dangerous matchup for a young Vols team. On the contrary, Cincinnati returns 18 starters from a season ago, including dual-threat quarterback Zach Collaros and future NFL running back Isaiah Pead.
 If this game were played later in the season, say in November, UT would have a decisive advantage and more than likely would win by two touchdowns.
But this is early September, and the Vols must grow up fast.
Dooley has said repeatedly that he is treating the underclassmen on the team like juniors and seniors because they need to play like upperclassmen if the Vols are going to compete for an SEC Eastern division title this year.
 Saturday is the first test.
While a loss on Saturday would be disappointing, it wouldn’t necessarily signify trouble for Dooley in year two, as say a loss to Vanderbilt or Kentucky in November would.
But, if this Tennessee team is going to take that proverbial next step this season towards becoming a championship program again, Saturday’s game can be a huge building block.
What Dooley, and more importantly UT, needs is a signature win. Cincinnati wouldn’t qualify as a signature win, but a loss to the Bearcats would mean the Vols desperately need at least two wins this year over SEC schools not named Kentucky or Vanderbilt.