It may sound like a broken record at this point, but it bears repeating: Tennessee's closer-than-expected victory over South Carolina on Saturday shouldn't raise much cause for concern. Yes, some troubling patterns reemerged that had died down over the past couple games, and some frustrating issues sprung up yet again that let South Carolina hang around longer than they should have. But the Vols still won and made it above .500 for the first time since the third game of the 2015 season in mid-September.
An ugly win over South Carolina on Saturday is preferable to the "moral victories" and close losses the Vols have sustained more often than not over the last half decade or more. While that may seem like common sense, you wouldn't know it from the amount of negative reaction after the win on Saturday. Fans seemed overall more satisfied after Tennessee's 19-14 loss to Alabama than after their 27-24 victory over the Gamecocks.
Vol fans have a right to be frustrated with what they saw from the Vols during the game. Tennessee had the talent to blow out the Gamecocks and probably should have. But the fact remains that the Vols still earned the victory, and a win, no matter how you get it, is better than losing, even if it's a one-score loss to one of the best teams in the country.
I'll say it again: An ugly win is always, always better than any sort of loss. Period.
Tennessee has had four losses by one score this year alone.In three of those, the Vols gave up a fourth quarter lead. And while only one of those could really be classified as a "moral victory," they are all still losses. Those are still games that set the Vols back from achieving their goals this season. And that's just in 2015. Take a look back and you'll see more "moral victories" and close losses.
In 2014, the Vols sustained three losses that were within one score, dropping games to Florida, Georgia, and Missouri that fit that description. The Florida loss was extremely painful, but the losses to Georgia and Missouri were looked upon more favorably (although many thought and still think the Vols would've won the Georgia game had Worley not gotten hurt during it). In 2013, Tennessee came up agonizingly short to both Georgia and Vanderbilt, costing them a bowl berth for the third straight season. And in 2012, the Vols had three one-score defeats at the hands of Georgia, South Carolina, and Missouri, and all three ended up keeping the Vols out of the bowl season and ending the Derek Dooley tenure.
Did some of the same issues that caused the Vols to lose games against Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Florida happen again against South Carolina? Absolutely. Tennessee's running game went stagnant in the second half against the Gamecocks, and when the Vols needed a first down late in the fourth quarter to seal the victory, the offense once again went three-and-out.
But the difference between those losses and the win on Saturday can be traced back to the Georgia game a month ago.
Since the Vols rallied back to defeat Georgia 38-31 on October 10th, their late game resiliency on defense has improved. When Tennessee needed a defensive play against the Bulldogs, safety Brian Randolph batted away the game-tying touchdowns as time expired. And then when the Vols needed to put a stop to South Carolina late, cornerback Malik Foreman stripped South Carolina's receiver to force a game-clinching fumble.
Alabama may have scored against the Vols late in the fourth quarter, but that was more of the Tide using their best player effectively and showing that they still have a talent edge over the Vols. Regardless, Tennessee's late game play-making has improved. When the Vols needed to score against South Carolina late, they did. When they needed a late stop, they got one.
Tennessee may have made plays against an inferior opponent this past Saturday, but they still made the plays. Vols teams in the past have lost to inferior opponents because they failed to make those plays, and it shows their improvement that they were able to gut it out against a South Carolina team with nothing to lose on Saturday.
The Vols aren't going to blow out every opponent they play. Tennessee is a good team, but even good teams will have close games against lesser opponents. Just look at the SEC East champion Florida Gators from this past weekend too. The Gators needed a field goal with 2:22 left in the game to earn a 9-7 victory over a Vanderbilt team that won't make a bowl game this year. Even good teams have struggles against lesser competition.
Take a look at Tennessee's own past. Some of the Vols best teams had close games against weaker opponents. The Vols won one and two-point contests against Memphis in 1999 and 2000, a one-point game to Air Force in 2006, and three times won one-score games against Vanderbilt from 1994-96. Even in Tennessee's National Championship season in 1998, they won close games and "got lucky" against Syracuse and Arkansas.
Tennessee's win over South Carolina was ugly. There were issues that popped up against the Gamecocks that had cost the Vols games earlier this season. But any win is a win, and that's always better than the alternative.