KNOXVILLE — If you're a Tennessee football fan, remember this date: Oct. 26, 2019.
That's the day your Volunteers program officially returned to Southeastern Conference relevance.
Sure, the unofficial return may have come a week earlier inside Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium, when UT lost 35-13 to a top-ranked Crimson Tide bunch in a game that could have ended in a much closer score.
But late Saturday afternoon, inside a Neyland Stadium that was louder and prouder than it's ever sounded when including only 87,397, the Vols blasted South Carolina 41-21 to send an unmistakable message to the rest of the SEC that playing the Big Orange will once more be a big problem.
"We really dominated the second half in all phases," second-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt said. "This was a chance for our program to grow up. Good to see we had an opportunity to put that on display tonight."
Almost never has a recent UT coach spoken more truthful words from a positive angle. The Vols' defense not only held the Gamecocks without a second-half point, it also blanked them on third-down conversions (0-for-9), blocked a punt for a score — senior Daniel Bituli both blocking it and falling on it in the end zone for a touchdown — and won the second-half time of possession by more than five minutes.
But what the Vols really did was finish the job they've so often failed to finish in recent years. Underdogs by as many as 4.5 points when this game began, Tennessee rallied from a 21-17 halftime deficit to outscore the Gamecocks 24-0 in the final half.
"We honestly got tired of losing to South Carolina," senior Nigel Warrior said of those three straight losses to the Gamecocks. "We feed off each other. I think we did pretty good. But I think we can do better."
This is the attitude Pruitt sought to instill in this program when he left his defensive coordinator's gig at Alabama after helping the Tide win a national championship at the close of the 2017 season. Be happy. Never be satisfied.
And offensive lineman Trey Smith was quick to add to that philosophy when he said, "We just go right back to work. Right back in the office on Sunday watching film."
If you, for a second, aren't sure Pruitt's running this show, consider his answer for playing three different quarterbacks, each of whom had a hand in at least one score: "I decided."
"Why?" someone asked.
"Just the way I wanted to do it."
Playing the way he wanted the Vols to do it against the Gamecocks, they not only should roll through the rest of their schedule unbeaten, they should roll into bowl season on the kind of five-game winning streak that should do much to keep them out of those less attractive bowl sites such as Shreveport, Birmingham and Memphis.
Look around the SEC right now and Bama, LSU, Auburn, Florida and Georgia are all more attractive bowl teams than the Vols. But who else comes to mind?
Let either Alabama or LSU go to the College Football Playoff with the other headed to the Peach Bowl and a third (Auburn, Georgia or Florida, perhaps) playing in the Sugar Bowl, and Tennessee could wind up in the TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville, or possibly the Outback if it can win the remainder of its SEC games to finish 5-3 in league play.
Or as quarterback Jarrett Guarantano said, "We're excited for it to keep going and get to a bowl game."
If you want to better understand the character of a team that can lose its first two games to Georgia State and Brigham Young and still have the fight and focus to threaten Alabama and run the Gamecocks out of Neyland Stadium in the final half, study Guarantano, who probably had one of the toughest weeks a college kid could have after costing his team a probable touchdown against Bama by ignoring the play the coaching staff called.
Meeting with the media late Saturday, the junior wryly said of his week, which featured numerous attacks on social media, "Everything's been going pretty smooth. That's about it. I've gotten some good advice on social media."
We have a lot of politicians in Washington who should learn such grace.
Yet the best advice these Vols could have going forward on offense is to get the ball to senior wideout Jauan Jennings as often as possible.
His stat line against South Carolina read as follows: five rushes for 18 yards, seven catches for 174 yards and two touchdowns, one of which might be the most dramatic TD in college football this week, with at least four tackles broken.
If the Tennessee Titans can draft Jennings in the first round of next spring's NFL draft and don't, every person who had a hand in that decision should be fired.
"Jauan has a passion for the game, his teammates, the University of Tennessee," Pruitt said.
He also has enough talent that if the Vols had been a little better in the won-lost column, he could have been the SEC offensive player of the year.
But the most remarkable thing about this win was its completeness and the passion with which this longsuffering program performed. It was almost as if they were exorcising the demons of former coaches Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley and Butch Jones all at once.
And just to make sure all this wasn't lost on future recruits, Pruitt also said: "I don't know why anyone wouldn't want to come here."
If the Vols can keep repeating Saturday's effort for four more weeks, the Big Orange Nation belting out "Rocky Top" as they haven't in more than a decade with every great play, Pruitt just might be on to something.
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