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Tennessee head coach Butch Jones communicates with players during the first half of an NCAA college football game against South Carolina Saturday, Oct. 29, 2016, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)
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Mark Wiedmer

COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina 24, Tennessee 21?

Really?

REALLY?

Upon watching Tennessee's third loss in eight games Saturday night, a shocking setback to basically torpedo whatever good work had gone before it, what the Volunteers appeared to gain most from their bye week last weekend was rust.

Oh, they regained the services of Darrin Kirkland Jr. at linebacker. And several Vols who limped from the Alabama loss before its conclusion — most notably offensive lineman Chance Hall — were also back in action.

And that uninspiring play throughout ended all doubt that this team was at all capable of undertaking a gradual, upward path to avenge that 49-10 loss to Alabama, or whoever else reaches the Southeastern Conference championship game on Dec. 3 inside the Georgia Dome.

No, this looked like anything but a championship team throughout, but especially when it mattered most, inside the game's final four minutes, when victory could still pry its way clear of the jaws of defeat.

It was going to be a drive to define the entire season for Team 120. Down 24-21 to South Carolina with 3:50 to play on Saturday night, 80 yards from victory, the Vols had plenty of time, talent, experience and motivation to drive it down the Gamecocks' throats, escape with a victory and run through the rest of their schedule unbeaten.

That potential 10-2 record wouldn't necessarily guarantee Tennessee a spot in the SEC title game — given that Florida was one game ahead of the Big Orange in the SEC East standings — but it would signal a heck of a year given the schedule and the injuries.

Unfortunately for Volniacs everywhere, that drive lasted one play. It ended in an interception. When South Carolina picked up a first down on a third-down pass three plays later, a play that forced UT to burn the rest of its timeouts, it was all over — the championship dreams, the return to glory, the notion that there really was magic in this team, as had seemed so likely during those early miracle comebacks against Florida and Georgia.

The irony, of course, is that this is where it all began two years ago. Nov. 1, 2014. A bitterly cold day. Snowflakes in the air. Not raindrops still dressed as snowflakes from Halloween festivities a day earlier. Real snowflakes, or at least a few flurries worth of them.

Yet even that frigid temperature couldn't cool down a sophomore Dobbs, who threw for 301 yards and two touchdowns, ran for 166 yards and three other touchdowns and led the Vols to a stunning overtime win over the Gamecocks in this same Williams-Brice Stadium.

That victory propelled Tennessee into its first bowl game since 2009, which became a resounding 45-28 TaxSlayer Bowl win over Iowa.

That victory turned what looked as if it would be a 5-7 season — and thus UT's fifth straight losing season — into its first winning year since 2009, the season of Lane Kiffin. And that begat a 9-4 mark last season, which ended in a rout of Northwestern in the Outback Bowl.

And that, of course, led the more optimistic in the media (blush, blush) to gaze at 17 returning Big Orange starters and proclaim these guys national playoff contenders.

Dobbs even said this past week of that South Carolina win two years ago on enemy soil: "It definitely led us down the right track. Obviously, we had six regular-season wins that year, and that was definitely an important one to get there and accomplish that goal. It was a steppingstone in the right direction, and we've only continued to grow since then."

Correction: They HAD continued to grow. Now it all seems a bit stale and suspect and forgettable, this once promising season now headed for a return to the Outback, or possibly the Citrus Bowl at best, reinvigorating the classic Steve Spurrier line that you can't spell C-I-T-R-U-S without a U and a T. It feels like the worst loss of Jones' four seasons on the job.

Call it rust, call it bad coaching, call it whatever you want. But whatever you call the Vols from this point forward, it seems highly unlikely that you'll have a chance to call them SEC East champs.

"We've improved," said winning coach Will Muschamp.

That's one phrase no one involved with Team 120 can utter today.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

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