But the mark of a good team is to win when it's not playing its best.
That's what the 25th-ranked Vols did at Scott Field, turning back the Bulldogs 33-21 behind a solid running game – can you say `pound the rock?' – and a terrific performance by wide receiver Lucas Taylor.
Taylor, a question mark entering this season, has become an answer. Taylor had 11 catches for 186 yards – both career highs – to move his season totals to 41 catches for 618 yards. Those would have been acceptable season totals before this year. Now, Taylor is on pace for more than 80 catches while averaging 103 receiving yards per game.
Taylor has clearly been the most surprising player for the Vols this season.
But he wasn't the only star against Mississippi State.
Arian Foster, humbled by his game-changing fumble in the Outback Bowl against Penn State, ripped through MSU for 139 yards on 21 carries. He's gained 237 yards and scored four touchdowns in his last two games, and he's on pace for a 1,000-yard season.
Foster has helped get Tennessee's season turned in the right direction.
Don't get me wrong – Tennessee isn't a great team. But it's a good enough team to defeat each of its remaining opponents.
It's good enough because it is doing what it didn't seem capable of doing earlier this season – running the football.
Tennessee averaged 132 rushing yards in is first four games. The Vols have averaged over 200 rushing yards in the last two games – against SEC opponents.
Tennessee pounded out 211 rushing yards against a State team that was ranked fourth in the SEC in run defense.
UT has come a long way since being held to 37 rushing yards against Florida.
You can see the confidence growing with the offensive linemen and the running backs. And you can see the confidence emanating from coach Phillip Fulmer.
``It ended up being one of those ugly, bloody, who-can-run-the-football-best games that I enjoy being a part of,'' Fulmer said.
Tennessee guard Vlad Richard enjoyed it, too.
``That definitely helps our confidence,'' said of the offensive line. ``If we can run the ball, Coach Cut (offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe) is going to call the run and give us a chance to show what we can do.''
Richard and Jacques McClendon have added a spark to the run game when they're paired up at guard.
``I'm excited when I get on the field,'' Richard said. ``I feel I bring energy, and extra buzz. I jump and I skip and I clap. When they see someone excited, it gets everybody going.''
Indeed, a team that gave up on the run game against Florida is relying on it now.
``To see the line work is a beautiful thing,'' said Foster, who broke off runs of 29 and 38 yards. ``They blew people out of the water. We've found a niche in the run game.''
Foster zipped 29 yards on the direct snap.
``It was really designed to get 5 or 6 yards,'' Foster said. ``Their (defensive) line was sitting back. It was a real quick hit. It gets me going fast instead of delaying and it was wide open.''
Montario Hardesty, healthy for the first time in his career, got 78 hard-earned yards on 16 carries. He combined with Foster to gain 217.
Fulmer said Foster has been the team's MVP the past two weeks.
If that's true, the offensive line has been the co-MVP.
Fulmer applauded the line's toughness after the State game. He said guard Anthony Parker (knee) hardly practiced during the week, guard Chris Scott played despite a 103-degree fever while needing IVs before the game and at halftime, and tackle Ramon Foster held Titus Brown (six sacks this season) without a sack.
``We did a heckuva job containing him,'' Foster said.
The Vols also did a heckuva job controlling the clock in the second half, reeling off scoring drives of nine, 12, 14 and five plays while holding the ball for 11 minutes in the fourth quarter.
It's the way Fulmer loves to win a football game. Pound the rock and keep the opposing offense off the field.
State managed just seven second-half points after scoring two touchdowns in the first half. And after State converted three third-and-10 plays in the first half, they made just one third-and-7 or longer in the second half.
Moreover, Tennessee stopped State three times on fourth down.
It wasn't an artistic success. But it was better than the result LSU got Saturday.
And it left Tennessee where it wanted to be in mid-October – in control of its destiny.