Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt will lead the Vols into an SEC East matchup at Kentucky on Saturday night.

Updated with new photo at 5:40 p.m. on Nov. 8, 2019.

KNOXVILLE — From the time he was hired to lead the University of Tennessee football program in December 2017, Jeremy Pruitt has continually talked about doing things "the right way," with a firm belief that consistent effort would yield consistent results for the Volunteers in the long run.

In the short run, though, his first 21 games as a head coach haven't always produced consistent results.

Is Tennessee the team that nearly lost to Charlotte last year, dropped this season's opener to Georgia State and a week later disappointed with a late-game collapse in a double-overtime loss to BYU?

Or is it the team that last season went on the road and beat an eventual eight-win Auburn team and took control early in a home victory against a Kentucky team that finished with 10 wins?

The answer is probably somewhere in the middle.

Right now, the Volunteers are not at the level of fellow Southeastern Conference programs such as Alabama, Georgia or even Florida. A decade of on-field irrelevance has done that, so as they try to show progress, what's most notable for the Vols are their results against the other programs in the SEC — the ones with which they're currently on more equal footing.

A year ago, Tennessee failed in matchups with South Carolina, Missouri and Vanderbilt on the way to a 5-7 record.

This season's Vols (4-5, 2-3) have already beaten South Carolina, pulling away in the second half for a dominant win on Oct. 26. They will have more opportunities to show they've taken steps forward with their final three regular-season games, starting with Saturday's 7:30 p.m. matchup at Kentucky (4-4, 2-3), which will be televised by the SEC Network.

Earlier this week Pruitt praised Tennessee players and coaches for "buying in" and "competing hard."

"We have some good leadership on our team," Pruitt said. "Our guys have never flinched. They just keep working. They believe in what we are doing here. It is amazing that when you believe in something, you stay the course, and our kids believed. They believe in what we are doing. They believe in our strength and conditioning. They believe in our nutrition, the people that are teaching them and (handling) player development.

"We have kind of stayed together and just keep grinding it out."

From 1993 to 2006, when current Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer was still the Vols' football coach, the team went 61-9 against SEC opponents besides Alabama, Florida and Georgia. The Vols were 23-18-1 against those three — Alabama had to later vacate its 1993 tie with Tennessee as a result of NCAA sanctions — but the chunk of their league success came against the other programs.

Since then, not only have those three dominated Tennessee — which has a combined five wins against the trio since 2007 — the Vols are just 32-30 against other SEC programs in that span, moving above .500 with wins this year against South Carolina and Mississippi State.

Winning those equal footing games puts the Vols in position to make year-to-year progress and develop so that being mentioned with rivals Alabama, Florida and Georgia might again be a possibility, which is where Pruitt's devotion to consistent effort comes in.

That's why Pruitt didn't let this year's Vols get down after a 1-4 start, and it's why they're not getting overly excited about recent success. They have a goal in front of them and they're working toward it.

This week it's beating the Wildcats.

"We focus on the most important game," senior linebacker Daniel Bituli said. "The most important game is the next game. We can't overlook Kentucky, because they're a really good team. They like to run the ball and they're a really established program. We've seen in the past how intense the games have been, so what we can't do is overlook a team.

"We're in the SEC, and every team is really good; every team has a whole bunch of talented guys. We've just got to focus in on our assignments and worry about Kentucky. That's it."

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