KNOXVILLE - Tennessee began pointing to the positives moments after its overtime loss to Georgia.
A program with a long uphill climb ahead of it, the Volunteers rightly acknowledged some of the strides it took in nearly upsetting the Bulldogs in an electric Neyland Stadium.
Yet some assistant coaches, during Tennessee's open date last week, noted the outcome, too. The Vols lost the game. The program's losing streak against ranked opponents, now at 19 games, continued.
Butch Jones still is looking for a signature win in his first season as coach.
"I think the loss can actually help us a little bit," safety Brian Randolph said last week. "We all hurt about the loss, and we all just want to go out there and prove it wasn't just a fluke that we were with Georgia. We want to show that we can actually beat teams like that, so I think we're going to use these next two weeks to harbor up our energy and come out and get South Carolina."
Did the Vols, one of three SEC teams to play six straight weeks to open the season, make the most of their weekend off? Tennessee will have a chance to prove it one way or the other on Saturday, when the Gamecocks visit Knoxville. South Carolina has won three in a row in the series and are 5-3 against Tennessee since Steve Spurrier took over as coach in 2005.
Since losing to full-strength Georgia in Athens, the 11th-ranked Gamecocks have won four straight games. South Carolina built leads of 28, 18 and 21 points against Vanderbilt, Central Florida and Kentucky, but the Gamecocks only won those games by a combined 20 points.
On Saturday, though, the Gamecocks crushed Arkansas in Fayetteville by scoring 52 straight points, outgaining the Razorbacks 537-248 and running a whopping 52 more plays than their hosts.
"It's either going to give us confidence or overconfidence," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said Sunday.
Tennessee was able to take some positives from its loss to Georgia, but the key for the Vols is not allowing that near miss to become the highlight of the season.
"I think one of the biggest things we've improved on as a team is that I think we can come out there and play like that every game, and that we can compete with the best and really know it because we have it on film," redshirt freshman defensive tackle Danny O'Brien said.
"That's what we have to play like. Coach [Jones] said that's how were going to have to play like because we're not going to sneak up on anybody."
The Vols are 11th in the SEC in both total offense and total defense, but Tennessee has been solid in special teams. The Vols lead the SEC with 15 takeaways, but have turned the ball over 10 times the past three games. After being penalized nine times in the first four games, Tennessee was flagged eight times against South Alabama and nine times against Georgia.
If the close loss to Georgia was considered a significant step, the Vols must continue to show improvement, particularly if it wants to reach six wins and bowl eligibility.
"Yeah we didn't win, but there were a lot of good things that we saw on film, a lot of good things that we know we can do when we're playing under pressure and playing from behind," tailback Rajion Neal said.
"I think it gave our team something to build off of and it came at a great time with us being on a bye week, and getting our minds back right and moving on to the second half of the season."
In its next four games, Tennessee faces four teams with two combined losses.
"I never expect to lose any games," Randolph said. "That's not the right mentality, to go out there and expect to lose. No one on the team expects to lose. Whenever we go out and play, if we're playing an NFL team, everyone on the team feels like we can beat them.
"Three-and-three's not what we were looking for, but now that we're here, we still have to realize it's a long season and we have a lot of games left."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.