COLUMBIA, S.C. — This Tennessee comeback had a different feel to it.
Never mind the other comebacks that ran out of steam against nationally ranked teams. This one kept building — until the Vols were 19 yards away from the goal line of No. 17 South Carolina.
What was 19 yards for an offense that already had gained well over 400? What was one more score for quarterback Tyler Bray, who already had thrown four touchdowns against a defense that looked as helpless as UT's?
What was it?
It was too much to ask.
The comeback ended in a flash. The feeling that this game would be different vanished as quickly as South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney exploded out of his stance and into the UT backfield.
A quarterback who is renowned for his quick release wasn't quick enough this time. The SEC's premier pass rusher knocked the ball to the ground before Bray could begin his follow-through; South Carolina linebacker Shaq Wilson recovered the ball with 1:08 to play to all but clinch a 38-35 victory.
If you take the outcome at face value, you night not feel any different about this UT loss than all the others that have piled up during the past three seasons. It was just one more in a long line of disappointments for a program that has lost 12 of its past 13 conference games.
At least, the Vols didn't unravel in the wake of a 44-13 loss to Alabama a week earlier. Faint praise? Maybe. But a close loss still beats an embarrassing one, particularly when you remember how the 2011 UT team played in its last game against a nationally ranked team. It all but waved a white flag while losing to Arkansas 49-7 last November.
The Vols didn't quit against South Carolina. They didn't quit making mistakes, either.
As well as the offense played, as much effort as the team delivered, you can't get past the mistakes — most of which were committed by a defense that has given up an average of 42.2 points per game in SEC play.
Tennessee no longer suffers from as great of a talent disadvantage as it did in coach Derek Dooley's first two seasons. But its margin for error still remains slight, especially against nationally ranked teams.
For example, look how South Carolina gained the upper hand in the first quarter.
On third-and-10 from the UT 42, Bray passed to wide receiver Justin Hunter, who would have had the first down if he could have hauled in a high throw. But the ball bounced off his hands.
Next play: Michael Palardy punted the ball 11 yards.
The UT defense took it from there.
A sack and Tennessee fumble recovery were negated when linebacker Willie Bohannon was flagged for a horse-collar tackle on Shaw. Moments later, Shaw connected with tight end Rory Anderson for a 26-yard touchdown pass on a third-and-26 proposition.
The series of miscues gave South Carolina a 14-7 lead. No matter how much the Vols accomplished or threatened, they never so much as pulled even after that.
What's new, huh? Mistakes have separated the Vols from the best teams on their schedule throughout the season.
Now, you have to wonder how much mistakes will factor into the final four games, all against lesser teams.
Tennessee is capable of winning all four games — in some cases, maybe by decisive margins — and perhaps saving its coach's job in the process. Yet you can't ignore the track record.
Even when the Vols are rolling — and they were rolling in the fourth quarter against South Carolina — they repeatedly make that game-changing mistake.
Bray passed beautifully for much of the game. And his offensive line has seldom been better ("the best I've faced this year," Clowney said.)
But their performances still came up one play short.
John Adams is a senior columnist. Follow him on twitter.com/johnadamskns.