In this Oct. 3, file photo, Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin reacts during the game against Auburn in Knoxville. (AP Photo/Wade Payne, File)
KNOXVILLE -- Lane Kiffin had to keep reminding himself Saturday night that his Tennessee football team had just defeated No. 21 South Carolina by 18 points.
Tennessee's offense fell far short of his expectations, and Kiffin wasn't particularly pleased with his play calling, and he had to fight from being a killjoy in the immediate aftermath of a 31-13 win on national television.
"I had to keep reminding myself that that was a big win, and the largest win over (Steve) Spurrier by a Tennessee team in 19 years," Kiffin said. "Those things, I have to keep reminding myself of them, because I didn't think we played well. I didn't think that game should have been very close at all.
"I was disappointed."
His Volunteers controlled the Gamecocks all night, turning two turnovers into a 14-0 lead in the first four minutes. Their lead swelled to 21-0 following a third fumble.
An educated observer could have suggested that UT wisely controlled its advantage from that point, considering the sloppy conditions, but Kiffin said that wasn't his intent. He wanted the prime-time audience to watch his Vols wax the Gamecocks, and he claimed the three-score victory didn't nearly accomplish that.
"I was disappointed in myself, because I didn't think I called a very good game," Kiffin said. "I think I let the rain get to me and got out of our game plan. I got conservative and didn't attack them enough, because I was worried about ball security and having turnovers. I was just a little bit down after the game, because I thought that especially in front of a national audience, we could have performed better and done better things so the game wasn't even close at all.
"I want to make sure that our players know we expect to win by 19, 20 points when we're at home and a Top 25 team comes in. I had to remind them that we've got high standards, and we have a long ways to go."
And that was precisely the coach's postgame message. He didn't stop the Vols from singing and dancing and slapping each other's backs in the locker room, but he stopped short of praising their performance.
"None of us were exceptionally pleased with how we played, but Coach Kiffin let us know that anyway," senior left guard Cory Sullins said. "It was an excited locker room, like it is after every win, especially against an SEC team and ranked opponent, but he did come in and tell us there was some stuff we needed to clean up and things that we need to get better at.
"He let us know that we didn't execute as well as we should have, and that we left a lot of yards out there and a lot of plays out there that we should have made."
UT (4-4) is one fourth-and-short failure against UCLA and one blocked field goal at undefeated Alabama from being a 6-2 team, but it's still back in contention for a January bowl game after soundly defeating SEC East rivals Georgia and South Carolina.
The Vols received votes in every major media and coaches' poll this week, and their final four regular-season games -- starting Saturday against Memphis (2-6) -- represent the year's most manageable stretch.
Still, Kiffin reopened several position competitions in this week's practice, including middle linebacker, fullback, left guard, nickel cornerback, second-team defensive tackle and left defensive end in third-down situations.
"I kind of think that's a good thing, because it keeps guys on top of their game," senior defensive tackle Dan Williams said. "We have a lot of good guys that's on second team, and I know those guys want to play more, so I really respect that Coach Kiffin is giving these guys an opportunity. He gives everybody an opportunity to show what they can do.
"As a starter, you can't get settled into your position or just content in what you're doing. It just makes you go out there and practice harder and get better every week, because Coach Kiffin, he's going to play the best players. You might be the best player one week and then the backup the next week."
Williams' spot seems safe, but others -- especially on offense -- are in more precarious positions. Sullins and fellow senior Vladimir Richard will battle for the left guard spot after neither excelled against South Carolina.
"I like the fact that he won't ever settle for anything but the best," Sullins said of Kiffin. "That's a credit to how this program's going to run from here on out. It's definitely going to be championship-caliber coaches, and that's going to lead to championship-caliber teams.
"He won't settle for anything less, and that's a big part of why we're starting to do better as a team."
The No. 1 fullback opening isn't a product of poor play. Junior Kevin Cooper from Chattanooga and sophomore Austin Johnson made their first career touchdown receptions against the Gamecocks, and both again graded out well in other areas. The two have competed for the job since preseason camp, but Cooper hasn't surrendered the spot he earned under the previous coaching staff.
"It's a really healthy competition," Johnson said. "Me and Coop are really good friends. I push him, and he pushes me, and every day at practice, if one of us is slacking or isn't doing as good, it kind of picks up and keeps us working hard. I think me and Kevin will always have a great relationship and will always be pushing each other. And that's awesome to have, because it's only going to make you a better player each and every day.
"The job is never set. It's always open, and that's the cool thing about this staff."
Johnson agreed with statements from Williams and Sullins, that UT's new position policy will bring championship football back to their proud program.
And unlike Williams and Sullins, Johnson has future seasons to test that theory.
"We're always looking to play our best, and Coach Kiffin didn't think we played our best and didn't execute the best we could (Saturday)," Johnson said. "I think that's awesome, because it's only going to push us harder in practice this week. When you don't play your best and you do win, that's something special, because you know your system is working, and everyone's playing hard."