The combination of Tennessee's 31-27 win at South Carolina on Saturday night coupled with LSU's stunning 44-34 unraveling against visiting Mississippi State earlier in the day has catapulted the Volunteers into owning the Southeastern Conference's longest active winning streak at seven games.
For some perspective, Tennessee's six-game streak to close last season came at the expense of teams that went a combined 38-38, so it's not like the Vols have been knocking off the Steelers and the Cowboys of the 1970s. For more perspective, though, Tennessee had endured a 3-17 mark in conference contests before this run, with 14 of those defeats by double digits.
"It's good momentum," Vols fifth-year senior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano said late Saturday night. "I thought we finished the year last year very high, and it's great to start with a win on the road. We just need to build on this."
Before Tennessee's 41-21 victory over South Carolina last season inside Neyland Stadium that ignited this streak, the Vols had become very good at losing close calls to the Gamecocks. From 2016 to 2018, the Vols managed to stumble in this series by scores of 24-21, 15-9 and 27-24, so Saturday night reflected the latest example of Tennessee finding the means necessary to triumph.
Four of Tennessee's seven straight wins have been one-possession games, though the Vols did build a 21-7 lead inside Williams-Brice Stadium early in the third quarter.
"I think they believe," Vols third-year coach Jeremy Pruitt said. "They believe in each other, and they believe in our program. They believe in our culture. It's not easy in this league, and we're not going to complain about winning a football game, I can tell you that."
Said senior receiver Josh Palmer: "We're relentless. Coach said there would be a lot of adversity in this game, and we expect the ball sometimes to not bounce our way, but we stick to the plan. You need to have mental strength to play in the SEC."
Only Notre Dame, which also won its final six games last season and is 2-0 this year with wins over Duke and South Florida, has a longer active winning streak among Bowl Subdivision programs.
With a 2020 schedule consisting solely of conference contests, Tennessee players are well aware of how nice it is to extend their winning ways. The Vols host Missouri this week before going back on the road to face Georgia, a program that has humbled Tennessee the past three years by a combined 96 points.
"I don't think this was an ugly win," Guarantano said. "In the SEC, there are dog fights every week, and when you go on the road, nothing comes easy. I think this team is very together."
Despite Tennessee's opening victory, the Vols dropped from No. 16 to No. 21 in Sunday's Associated Press poll.
Johnson's big night
There was nothing unlucky about jersey No. 13 Saturday night, as Tennessee senior linebacker Deandre Johnson had his top career performance with six tackles, 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble. His six stops topped the four he compiled during the win at Auburn in 2018, and his 2.5 sacks matched last season's total.
"You really see a young man who is maturing, not only on the field but off the field," Pruitt said of the 6-foot-3, 255-pounder from Miami. "He wanted to come back and move back into the dorm for his last year. This is his third year in our system, so he knows what to do. He's a smart guy and a competitor. He's playing with confidence.
"I don't know what his numbers were tonight, but it seemed like he was in on a lot of plays. He's got a lot of really good football ahead of him."
Mixing and matching
The Vols were not at full strength in the secondary against the Gamecocks, and it showed.
While Tennessee held South Carolina to 89 rushing yards and 2.5 yards per carry, the Gamecocks threw for 290 yards, with the combination of Collin Hill and Shi Smith accounting for 140. The Vols opened with Alontae Taylor and Kenneth George Jr. at cornerback, Bryce Thompson and Trevon Flowers at safety, and with true freshman Doneiko Slaughter at the "star" position.
"We played Bryce at safety," Pruitt said. "Warren Burrell and Jaylen McCollough have been out, and they've only practiced a few days. Shawn Shamburger didn't make the trip, so we were piecing it together there a little bit, and we knew that coming in. We were inconsistent. We had a chance to put our foot on their throat, and we didn't.
"You've got to give them credit, but we've got to stop making mistakes."
Tired of talking?
Offensive lineman Cade Mays, who transferred from Georgia in January but has yet to be cleared to play by the SEC, didn't make the trip to Columbia, but that didn't stop questions about the situation.
"It's obviously been frustrating with me, and I'm frustrated for Cade," Pruitt said. "When we had all the unknowns, Cade came back and tried to persevere and find a way. My grandmother always said, 'If you ain't got something nice to say, don't say nothing at all,' so I'm just not going to say anything else."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.