KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee has been the subject of much ridicule after losing its season opener to 26-point underdog Georgia State and dropping four of its first five games.
But the Volunteers just might get the last laugh.
Tennessee (4-5, 2-3 SEC) has won three of its last four games and could become eligible for its first bowl appearance since 2016. The Vols need to win two of their next three games, a stretch that includes trips to Kentucky (4-4, 2-4) and Missouri (5-3, 2-2) plus a home matchup with Vanderbilt (2-6, 1-4).
"Nobody expected the season to be like this, but we're still fighting," defensive lineman Aubrey Solomon said. "We're still churning away. I'm not disappointed because we're making a case for ourselves. It really matters what you do in November, and we're playing some pretty dang good football here."
The fact Tennessee is playing November games with postseason implications shows how far the Vols have come.
One month ago, Tennessee's situation looked so dire that athletic director Phillip Fulmer went on the school's call-in radio show to say that "I totally believe in" second-year coach Jeremy Pruitt. Fulmer, the coach of Tennessee's 1998 national championship team, even pointed out that "the coaching chapter of my life is long closed."
Tennessee lost to Georgia later that week but has looked like an entirely different team since.
"Our guys have never flinched," Pruitt said. "They just keep working. They believe in what we are doing here."
Tennessee has made this surge while shuffling quarterbacks.
Freshman Brian Maurer replaced Jarrett Guarantano as Tennessee's starter in early October but has missed the Vols' last two games while recovering from concussions. Guarantano, who has a broken bone in his non-throwing hand, has shared playing time with J.T. Shrout in those two games.
Pruitt isn't saying how he plans to use his quarterbacks Saturday at Kentucky.
"We'll look and see where we're at and who gives us the best opportunity to have success, and we'll play those guys," Pruitt said. "It might be one of them. It might be two of them. It might be three of them."
Pruitt's quarterback choice might not matter much if Tennessee's defense keeps playing as well as it has lately.
Tennessee has outscored opponents 54-7 over its last six quarters. Tennessee's 23 sacks match No. 12 Auburn for the Southeastern Conference's second-highest total, behind only No. 10 Florida.
That surge has come under new defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley, who worked for Kentucky coach Mark Stoops as the Wildcats' defensive backs coach from 2013-15.
"Derrick is a really great coach," Stoops said. "It doesn't surprise me that his unit is getting better and better as the year is going on."
Ansley's benefited from the return of key contributors.
Thompson was suspended for Tennessee's first three games after an August arrest on a misdemeanor domestic assault charge that was later dismissed. Daniel Bituli, who led Tennessee in tackles in 2017 and 2018, missed Tennessee's first two games due to a knee issue.
Now that they're back, the defense has raised its game. Tennessee also has corrected the mistakes that led to its poor start.
"You have to figure out why we were 1-4," Pruitt said. "It was pretty simple. We turned the football over. We didn't get enough turnovers. We didn't play clean."
In its first four games against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents - all losses - Tennessee had 10 turnovers and four takeaways. During its current 3-1 stretch, Tennessee has five turnovers and eight takeaways. Tennessee has intercepted 13 passes to tie for third place among all FBS teams, behind only No. 7 Oregon and San Jose State.
Now the team that spent September searching for answers just might spend December making bowl preparations.
"There was no point in just sulking and being upset about a 1-4 start," safety Jaylen McCollough said. "We just had to put our nose down and go to work. The work is starting to pay off. We've still got a whole bunch of work to do, though."
AP sports writer Gary Graves in Lexington, Kentucky, contributed to this report.