Tennessee Athletics photo by Caleb Jones / Tennessee senior center Brandon Kennedy, a graduate transfer from Alabama, hopes to experience his first season-opening victory with the Volunteers on Saturday night when they visit South Carolina.

The Tennessee Volunteers proved last football season that they could finish.

Now it's time to work on the start.

No matter the metric, Tennessee has been lousy in recent years when it comes to getting out of the gate. The Vols have lost their past two season openers, including last year's stunning setback against Georgia State, and they have dropped 14 of their past 15 Southeastern Conference openers.

Florida has been responsible for almost all of Tennessee's 0-1 league starts during this stretch, but the SEC's adjusted scheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the Vols opening this season Saturday night at South Carolina. The SEC Network will televise the game, which kicks off at 7:30.

"We know, as an entire team, what to expect and how good we can be," Vols sophomore linebacker Henry To'o To'o said this week. "When we play to our full potential, we can do great things on the field. Things will change, and it's up to us.

"The coaches lay out a game plan for us to execute, and it's up to us now."

Tennessee won its final six games last season, with a 41-21 whipping of Will Muschamp's Gamecocks inside Neyland Stadium igniting that surge, and the Vols capped their 8-5 record with a 23-22 comeback triumph over Indiana in the Gator Bowl. The late success also enabled them to turn their 57-62 record during the 2010s into a 63-62 mark.

Given that Tennessee was college football's winningest program in the 75-year run from 1926 to 2001, eclipsing .500 last decade didn't result in any parades. It just magnified how slow starts have hindered the Vols, who have been above .500 through six games only once since 2008.

The Vols lost four of their first five games a year ago, with the opening embarrassment to the Sun Belt Conference's Panthers containing three Tennessee turnovers and two more possessions ending in a loss of downs.

"One of the things we have harped on is the team with the fewest mistakes will win," senior center Brandon Kennedy said, "so that's what we've been harping on this whole time, trying to play clean football and be penalty free and things like that. I think if we do that, we will put ourselves in good position to be successful on Saturday."

Another potential component for a quicker Tennessee start this season is sophomore running back Eric Gray, who amassed 207 rushing yards during the first 11 contests last year and 332 in the final two. Gray shredded Vanderbilt for 246 yards and followed that up with Gator Bowl MVP honors.

"Last season, for me, was just getting to learn how to be a college back," Gray said. "It took me a few games (to learn) how to be a college back, get a feel for the offense and get a feel for playing in the SEC. I feel like I had to get a feel for that at first.

"Now that I feel like I have that experience, I definitely feel like I'm going to start fast."

That would be welcome for the Vols, who desire a solid start to a new year and a new decade.

Contact David Paschall at or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.