› No. 18 Tennessee (5-2, 2-2 SEC) at South Carolina (3-4, 1-4)
› Columbia, S.C.
› Saturday, 7:15 p.m.
› ESPN2 & 106.5 FM
KNOXVILLE — Welcome back to an actual final-month division race, Tennessee.
The Volunteers last entered the back half of their Southeastern Conference schedule with two or fewer losses in 2007, so this is unfamiliar territory for a program whose minimum goal annually should be to compete to win its half of the league.
Tennessee headed into its open date an exhausted team coming off a humiliating home loss to Alabama, but the stakes of the final five games should rejuvenate what should be a healthier, rested group for Saturday's game at South Carolina.
"We all know what position we put ourselves in going into the bye week," wide receiver Josh Malone said Monday, "and the best thing we could have done with the bye week was to get the rest that we need, take care of our bodies and, when it's time to go practice, work on our techniques and improving our game.
"That's how, I feel as a team, we handled our bye week, so we can be able to produce these last five weeks."
Though the Vols will keep their focus on winning their remaining games, any good division race includes scoreboard-watching, and Tennessee needs Florida to drop a second SEC game to bring its 38-28 triumph against the Gators into play.
Florida faces Georgia on Saturday afternoon ahead of Tennessee's night-time kickoff in Columbia, and the following week the Vols' homecoming game against Tennessee Tech starts 30 minutes after the Gators kick off at Arkansas.
"We'll tune that out," said linebacker Colton Jumper, a former Baylor School standout. "That's just another distraction. All we can do is win this next game against South Carolina. That's all we can control. As much as you hear that — and that's probably not the answer that you wanted to hear — that's really what we're going to do."
And it's what the Vols have to do.
Though Tennessee's remaining opponents have a combined record of 16-21 — the first seven opponents currently are 38-12 — and only Kentucky has a winning record, the Vols can't simply show up and expect to win, especially in their current shorthanded state.
Tennessee needed overtime to beat Appalachian State, beat Ohio by only nine — though the game rarely appeared to be in serious doubt — and trailed in six of the seven games.
"All of our focus has to be on a very, very good South Carolina football team and working to play our best game," coach Butch Jones said. "We have not played our best football game yet. We've not played a complete football game in terms of all three units."
Jones often says the teams capable of handling the ups and downs and "natural adversities" of a long season are the ones that can compete and win championships, and Tennessee has had to battle multiple significant injuries to key players.
Playing seven straight games and facing four straight ranked SEC opponents certainly qualified as a grind, but Jones believes the final five weeks of the season will be similarly challenging even though Tennessee will be the decided favorite in every game.
"We went seven games straight, so I think everybody needed to rest their bodies," cornerback Emmanuel Moseley said. "I feel like everybody came back with the right mindset and the right energy. I'm pretty excited for the next five games."
Jones said there are no bad teams in the SEC, and while that's not true, the Vols' remaining SEC opponents will be trying to scrape their way to six wins and bowl eligibility.
Two of them, including South Carolina, have new coaches looking for their first signature wins.
"We're in a position where we haven't been in that everybody circles this game," Jones said, "and they're going to judge their programs on how well they play against Tennessee."
The Vols emerged from their season-defining stretch with a split after beating Florida and Georgia and losing to Texas A&M and Alabama, and they have set high the stakes for the back half of the schedule.
"The big thing was getting rest and being able to unplug and just relax," Malone said.
"That was really just the biggest thing, to get away from it all and be able to come back at the end of the week and know what's at stake and what we've got to do."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.