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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Tennessee's Ty Chandler fumbles as he is hit by Georgia State's Hardrick Willis, a turnover that led to the Panthers' first touchdown in their 38-30 victory to open the season Aug. 31 at Neyland Stadium.

KNOXVILLE — Although two months have passed, the stench of an opening loss to Georgia State hovers over the Tennessee football program.

Even if the players say they have moved on from it.

The Volunteers' 38-30 loss on Aug. 31 to a Sun Belt Conference team that went 2-10 last year set a tone opposite of what they wanted to start a new season. Optimism had been flowing around the program thanks to some momentum from recruiting, with many projecting the Vols to win as many as eight games this season and set themselves up nicely for an even bigger 2020.

But against the Panthers, they fell flat. Tennessee's offense had 404 total yards but sputtered in the red zone, managing only two touchdowns in four trips inside Georgia State's 20-yard line. The defense, missing the services of senior linebacker Daniel Bituli and sophomore cornerback Bryce Thompson, had trouble lining up properly and gave up 213 rushing yards.

The loss continued Tennessee's recent trend of struggling against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents from outside the Power Five conferences. That's something the Vols (3-5) hope to avoid when they face the University of Alabama at Birmingham (6-1), a Conference USA member, for homecoming at 7 p.m. Saturday at Neyland Stadium. ESPNU will televise the game.

some text Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Georgia State quarterback Dan Ellington heads to the end zone as Tennessee defensive backs Alontae Taylor (2) and Shawn Shamburger (12) collide during the season opener for both teams Aug. 31 at Neyland Stadium.

* In 2018, the Vols had lackluster wins over two C-USA programs, 24-0 against the University of Texas at El Paso and 10-3 against Charlotte.

* In 2017, Tennessee needed a late-game stop to survive 17-13 against FBS independent Massachusetts, and the Vols beat C-USA's Southern Miss 24-10 in uninspiring fashion. A little more than a week later and with two games left in his fifth season as coach, Butch Jones was fired the day after a 50-17 Southeastern Conference loss at Missouri.

* In 2016, after being ranked in the top 10 in the preseason, Tennessee got off to a bad start as it took overtime to beat Sun Belt foe Appalachian State 20-13. A couple of weeks later, the Vols led Mid-American Conference member Ohio by only two points entering the fourth quarter before winning 28-19.

After a slow start this season, the Vols have come on as of late with a promising October that was highlighted by wins over Mississippi State and South Carolina. Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt has been preaching improvement all season long, and now his team has responded.

While a victory against the Blazers won't erase the memories of Aug. 31, it will keep the Vols on the right track toward the six-win mark for bowl eligibility.

Which, after two years without a game beyond the regular season, would be improvement.

"To me it's really about us, so we need to keep looking to try to play our best game, and we have been nowhere close to that," Pruitt said Wednesday. "If you are a right guard and the best that you have played as far as grading is 78% in a game, you need to play better. If you are a left corner and the best you have played is 82% and you've got two missed tackles and three mental errors, then you need to eliminate the missed tackles, you need to eliminate the mental errors.

"That's how we gauge how we play. We've got a long way to go as individual players, as a defensive unit, as an offensive unit, special teams. That's what we are looking for, and that comes with preparation, it comes with creating the right habits, playing with the right mental intensity, playing together. So that's what we are focused on and that's every week. It doesn't matter who the opponent is. Some of the weeks we have been closer to that than we have others."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at Facebook.com/VolsUpdate.

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