This may seem like an odd question for a nonconference game that is merely the second game into the new offensive and defensive schemes for Tennessee, but I'm actually inclined to believe it is. Other games have more importance in terms of conference standings (and, by association, bowl prospects), but the game against UCLA is the one game that can either sell Lane Kiffin to the Tennessee Volunteer fans for the long haul or eliminate all of the good will and unflappable support that is currently flooding Big Orange country. Consider:
Why Lane Kiffin is Here
The Fulmer tenure ended for two reasons: a growing sense of apathy toward a product we'd seen for nearly two decades and the perception that the rest of the country was passing by the once-dominant Volunteers. The final straws on that camel were the conference losses that suggested that UT was no longer competitive at the top of the SEC, but the machinations that ultimately caused him to be fired started with the very first team of the year in 2008: the UCLA Bruins.
Without going into detail, it's sufficient to say that we saw the Volunteers do absolutely nothing on Clawfense against UCLA, and that 4 interceptions in the first half only resulted in a 14-7 halftime lead. At the time, we could talk ourselves into hoping that the offense merely needed a couple games to work the kinks out (and the UAB game seemed to suggest exactly that), but the notion that our offense was dead in the water had been planted in our heads.
Even worse, we very quickly lost all solace when UCLA proved to be an ineffectual opponent. Not only had they managed to win the game with an obviously decimated offense (due to injuries), but they would then go on to be on the wrong end of a 59-0 humiliation at the hands of the BYU Cougars, which was their worst loss in 75 years - and that after a bye week. This not only slapped Vols fans in the face with the realization of how much trouble the team was in, it happened during UT's bye week, thereby erasing all feelings of hope just in time for Florida.
So while UCLA wasn't the reason that we have a new head coach, it was the catalyst that helped the rest of the situation burn too hot to contain.
What Lane Kiffin Has Promised
Since his arrival, two massive differences have been noted about the new-look Volunteers. First, the new offensive scheme is supposed to be far simpler and ready out-of-the-box for success. The quarterback is not asked to remember up to 3 reads per receiver on every play, and the learning curve is supposed to be so easy, even a freshman can do it. Second, Kiffin has exposed the team to fans and media throughout the offseason. Unlike last year, where we talked ourselves into thinking that the team was going to be special (and me worst of all) and had no feedback from the program to keep us in check, Lane has let us see who's succeeding and who's struggling in practice. We know which practices were won by the offense and which were won by the defense. We know completion percentages, interception rates, and so on.
Between those two differences, Lane has promised an easier, more effective offense and he has tipped as much of his hand as he can allow. There is no room for excuses if the offense does not work as advertised, because he's done nothing but advertise the offense to us. (Honestly, much the same applies to the defense, but it was neither broken last year nor in doubt by any fans this year.)
Why UCLA Is The Game That Matters
UCLA exposed Tennessee last year, if only by virtue of being the first team with the opportunity to shish Clawbob the offense. This is now the second year under Neuheisel for the Bruins, and the second year is usually the breakout year for a team, which means they theoretically have a legitimate shot at repeating last year's heartbreak. UCLA is also a westerly nonconference opponent, and a big name at that. It's always been a point of UT pride to play (and win) marquee nonconference games, and a loss here would run the record to 1-3 against the PAC-10 in four years, with the last three being losses. There is a lot riding on UCLA specifically: revenge, conference pride, and a realistic measuring stick of our new team.
But a loss to UCLA would also bring shades of Tennessee's greatest disappointment: losing early and being out of contention. Normally, this honor has belonged to the Florida Gators, where the third game loss knocks Tennessee down the polls and causes them to trail in the standings, but UCLA can bump the heartbreak up a week, with the added bonus of removing all hope leading into Florida week. We would be looking forward to a two-week losing streak to a California team and that team, with only the pelt of the newest 1-A team in hand.
A win against UCLA, however, would reverse the equation. While the Florida loss is still the most likely scenario, beating UCLA would undoubtedly show Tennessee to be improved from last year (for while it's a home game, UCLA is a better team this year than last). A solid win would place the trend squarely on the path toward relevance again, and a Florida loss would become nothing more than a bump in the road while we wait for the recruiting chimera to rebuild the program.
So in short, beating UCLA gives Lane Kiffin all the time he'll need to prove his worth, while a loss would re-open old wounds and bring back all the doubt and misery of seasons past.
And I have a feeling that Lane Kiffin relishes the opportunity.