The first words out of South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier's mouth on the SEC teleconference this week were enough.

"Marcus Lattimore is ready to play," the Ol' Ball Coach said about his star freshman running back.

And with that, today's outcome was decided. With Lattimore, the Gamecocks are an elite SEC team and the front-runners in the East. With Lattimore, they are balanced. With Lattimore, they are powerful.

And with Lattimore, they are too much for this University of Tennessee team, which visits South Carolina today. South Carolina has, what, the five most talented players on the field and maybe eight of the top 10? When was the last time that happened to a Volunteers program?

"It's another big challenge for us," UT coach Derek Dooley said plainly.

He's right, and his team is overmatched. This is the least talented set of Vols in a generation - maybe the 1977 team was worse - and barring a major upset it will become the first Vols team since that '77 club to start 0-5 in the SEC.

How shallow is the Vols' talent pool? So far this season, the SEC has honored 51 players with one of six "player of the week" honors. Be it offensive, defensive, offensive line, defensive line, special teams or freshman, want to know how many Vols have been recognized? Doughnut. Yep, zero or the same number of UT SEC wins, and if you think the two are not related, well, fine, you have my permission to quit reading.

The previous regimes headed by Phillip Fulmer and Lane Kiffin have left lasting marks on the program. From recruiting mistakes to losing players to injuries to - well, you name it - these Vols have had to work through it.

That this team in all likelihood will limp 2-6 into November is not a shock. That was expected in some circles.

Now comes arguably the tallest order of a bloody October that must be remembered for its history but forgotten for future success.

"Now we're playing the team that whipped the team that whipped us pretty good last week," Dooley said of a Gamecocks club that doled out a 35-21 whipping to Alabama, which smoked the Vols 41-10 last week.

So it goes. It's the Orange circle of death in Dooley's first year.

It should have been expected, but it should end today.

The schedule gets a lot easier moving into November. The challenges of LSU or Georgia or Bama or South Carolina will not be found on a Saturday in the immediate future.

Should they write today off? Absolutely not. But they should hardly dwell on it much longer than it takes to get back to Knox County.

This is the team Spurrier has been building toward during his five years in Columbia, and this is the team Vols fans have been dreading since they seized control of the SEC in the late 1990s.

The league runs in cycles and the Vols are on a downward spiral. But the hints of an ascent - even the baby steps that start them - should be noticeable in November. Start with a win over Memphis and let it begin.

A push toward the finish line in the season's final month could be a key springboard into the most important months for Dooley and Co. The lighter schedule will not make the Vols deeper - only recruiting can do that, and the months that follow will be crucial in that regard.

"It's been like that all year," Dooley said of the Vols' porous depth chart. "Certainly when you have depth issues compound by inexperience, you have [rosters] in the high 60s from a scholarship standpoint.

"But there's only 22 out there at a time, and we have to keep showing improvement for those guys out there."

To Dooley's credit, he never has dabbled in excuses and made little time for "what ifs." That's a credit to him and provides some foundation on which to build. Does it guarantee success? Hardly. Does it allow for hope? You bet.

This is sports, after all, and the wins are wins and they are counted, and from there you are measured. But victories can be found in a variety of areas, in an aspect of avenues.

Dooley's Vols likely will have a handful of wins - maybe six, maybe four. Dooley's victories, though, are not as noticeable but certainly are noteworthy. The Vols are the least penalized team in the SEC. They play hard. When they fail to make plays, it's more often from a lack of talent rather than a lack of try, especially since that embarrassing loss to Oregon.

Today likely will be one-sided, but there can be victory found. Was there effort? Was there efficiency? Was there at least an appearance of leadership, especially among the younger players?

Even if the answer is not really, there will be victory if for no other reason than November starts Monday.