KNOXVILLE -- There were times when moral victories may have sufficed for this Tennessee football team.
Those times are gone.
The Volunteers will host South Carolina in a Southeastern Conference game tonight, and the 21st-ranked Gamecocks (6-2, 3-2) are far from a gimme.
But South Carolina is not undefeated, top-ranked Florida. It is not unbeaten, second-ranked Alabama.
Tennessee (3-4, 1-3) can stay competitive in the SEC Eastern Division race by winning, and Las Vegas oddsmakers expect it to do just that. UT was listed as a near touchdown favorite on some Web sites Friday night.
"We've played tight with some of these ranked teams and stuff like that, but you don't come to Tennessee to play people close," junior wide receiver Gerald Jones said. "You come to Tennessee to win big games and compete for championships, and it's time for us to start doing that again."
The Vols haven't allowed an offensive touchdown in more than eight quarters. UT's offense outgained Georgia and Alabama by substantial margins.
Special-teams play has been abysmal, but the Vols' first-year coaching staff has tried staying as positive as possible.
Head coach Lane Kiffin has taken risks -- specifically, keeping the offense on the field on fourth downs from its own half -- and he said the team has responded to his confidence.
"I believe that you build your players' confidence by letting them know that you're going to go for it in certain situations because you believe in them," Kiffin said. "I think our players have developed a swagger about them. They have developed a confidence where it doesn't matter what the score is, what the situation is, we keep fighting and we find a way to get back in the game. It would've been easy after that roughing-the-punter (penalty at Alabama) to throw it in and say the game's over, on the road in a hostile environment.
"I see that confidence coming. It's something that as we continue to get the guys that choose to come here, guys choose to come to a place a lot of times because of coaching staff. The players that choose to come here will have that in them. There will be some kids that won't want to come here, because they don't like our intensity or how we do things. We're a little bit different. But the guys that do come here ... they'll be those type of guys."
And those types of players rise to the top in big moments, Kiffin added. They live for spotlight games against ranked opponents. They disregard past disappointments -- even heartbreakers like the last-second loss at Alabama -- and focus forward.
If they haven't moved on, they've hidden their emotions well this week. Senior linebacker Rico McCoy joked Wednesday that he didn't even remember who the Vols played last week.
Junior All-America safety Eric Berry didn't mention Alabama, referring to last Saturday as "that game."
"We're going to be ready to play," Berry said. "Coach Kiffin always tells us about the 24-hour rule, and now we actually have practice Sunday, so that game's done. It's out the window. We've been totally focused on South Carolina and what we need to do to win this whole week."
Kiffin appreciated his star player's perspective, and he hopes his leader funnel that message down to every teammate who dresses every Saturday.
The coach doesn't have a system full of his recruited players, and his team lacks depth in several crucial areas, but those thoughts tend to dwindle toward the end of every week in favor of renewed gameday fervor.
And today's fervor, if the plan holds true, will get Kiffin's Vols their first win over a ranked opponent.
"That goes back to when I first got here," Kiffin said. "When they see me saying things ... they know I have confidence in them that we can go down and play against anybody. They know that this staff isn't worried about who we play, or where we're playing. They believe that we can put together a plan that we can go beat anybody.
"I think that's what your goal is to get your players to believe that they can beat anybody. And our guys do right now."
Other contacts for Wes Rucker are www.twitter.com/wesrucker and www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.