KNOXVILLE — In the span of a month, the fortunes of Tennessee's 2019 football season have changed significantly.
Four games ago, the Volunteers were coming off a 34-3 loss at Florida in which they did little on offense or defense to elicit enthusiasm about the remainder of the season. Longtime starting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, a redshirt junior, was benched in favor of freshman Brian Maurer in the second half of the loss, and the Vols gave up 293 passing yards to a quarterback making his first college start.
An open date that followed that game gave the Vols extra time to address the poor start and make changes, and it appears that happened, but coach Jeremy Pruitt said they still have a long way to go even after last weekend's runaway win against South Carolina.
"Sometimes the scoreboard doesn't indicate how you play," Pruitt said. "That has happened this year. There has been times where maybe we played a little better than the scoreboard indicated. When you turn the football over, it doesn't help you there. Saturday we created some plays on special teams that flipped it the other way, so maybe we didn't play as good as everyone thinks we did Saturday. I know how we played. I know that a lot of people in our program are not happy with how they played.
"We need to do a better job as coaches to get our guys to play their best, because that is what we are looking for. We will have an opportunity to do that Saturday night. We have worked hard this week to improve. There are so many places where we have to get better at. We are not playing winning football, and we have got to be able to do that. We've got guys in our program that need to step up, some that need to play harder for longer and some that need to execute at a higher level. Starting with myself and our coaches, we all need to improve and be at our best on Saturday."
The Vols went from a 1-3 September — with losses to Georgia State, BYU and Florida and a win against the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga — to a 2-2 October with wins against Mississippi State and South Carolina and losses to top-three programs Alabama and Georgia with encouraging stretches of play for Tennessee in both.
Tennessee players said this week that it has been as simple as deciding to focus on working toward the task at hand. With the Vols still three wins shy of bowl eligibility, they also know that approach must continue in November, starting with Saturday's 7 p.m. homecoming game against the University of Alabama at Birmingham (6-1), which will be televised by ESPNU.
"Man, we've just been coming to work," running back Ty Chandler said. "Just going to work every week, and that's the thing we've got to do — continue to do. We've got another good opponent coming ahead, UAB, so we've got to work just as hard as we did last week to get ready for them."
Although the Vols have had to deal with losses that were shocking (Georgia State) and heartbreaking (BYU in double overtime), as well as a pair of Southeastern Conference wins that were extremely emotional, senior center Brandon Kennedy said they have "been pretty even-keeled the whole season, and it's obviously fun to have wins, so we're just trying to change the culture and create a winning atmosphere around here."
It's hard to pinpoint a specific reason for the turnaround.
While it followed the change at quarterback, Maurer has been unable to finish any of the three games he has started due to injury and had to miss last Saturday's 41-21 win. The Vols averaged fewer yards per game in October than in September, and they turned the ball over almost as frequently, with seven in their first four games and six in their past four.
On defense, an increase in quarterback pressure has led to the Vols producing 12 sacks in the past three games — including seven against Mississippi State — and other lost-yardage stops. Senior linebacker Daniel Bituli said it was as simple as realizing the wounds early in the season were self-inflicted.
"Every score, every touchdown that the opposing teams have scored has been because we messed up," he said. "We just know that if we're on our A game and executing the proper way, then we can stop these teams from making these plays."
Three players took snaps last week as the Vols generated a season-high 351 passing yards, and their defense shut out the Gamecocks in the second half. Most importantly, they took another step toward what would be their first bowl berth since the 2016 season.
"It's very big," Bituli said. "This confidence level, it only gets bigger after games like that, just seeing how well we can really be. We still haven't played our best football yet and it's really good knowing that going into this week – knowing we're going against a really good team and just being able to prove to ourselves how good of a team we can be each and every week."