The Big Orange, now 4-4 overall and 2-3 in SEC play, recovered fumbles on two of South Carolina's first five offensive snaps and converted them into a 14-0 lead just 4 minutes into the game.
Clearly, concerns that the Vols would be flat after last weekend's heartbreaking loss to Alabama were unfounded.
Speaking on his post-game show, head coach Lane Kiffin noted: "There had been a lot of talk after the Alabama game - Would we be down? - but our players really responded to come out tonight and win by 18 points against a top-25 team."
The first fumble came when Vol safety Janzen Jackson knocked the ball loose from Gamecock tight end Justice Cunningham and Vol tackle Dan Williams recovered at SC's 43-yard line. Tennessee wasted no time exploiting the break, Jonathan Crompton hitting fullback Austin Johnson with a 38-yard touchdown pass on the Vols' second offensive snap.
Vol linebacker Rico McCoy belted tailback Kenny Miles to cause a fumble on the second play of South Carolina's second possession and tackle Wes Brown recovered at the Gamecock 27. Montario Hardesty carried four times, the last rush featuring a spectacular spin move on a 14-yard trip to the end zone that boosted the lead to 14-0 with 11:00 left in the initial period.
Tennessee had a chance to expand the lead further later in the quarter but Chad Cunningham - subbing for injured kicker Daniel Lincoln - had a 41-yard field goal blocked.
The Vols' opportunistic defense was at it again on the fourth play of the second quarter. Linebacker Savion Frazier drilled SC quarterback Stephen Garcia, causing a fumble that was recovered by Vol safety Dennis Rogan at the Carolina 22-yard line. Six plays later Crompton hit fullback Kevin Cooper with a touchdown pass on fourth-and-goal from the SC 2-yard line, bumping the lead to 21-0 with 11:38 left to halftime.
At this point Tennessee had converted three SC fumbles into touchdown drives of 43, 27 and 22 yards.
"I was proud of how our defense hit today," Kiffin said. "This was guys really hitting - capping off, as our defense calls it - and I was really proud of how our guys played."
Spencer Lanning booted a 47-yard field goal on the final play of the half, then added a 32-yarder as Carolina (6-3 overall, 3-3 SEC) closed to 21-6 midway through the third quarter.
Tennessee retaliated with a five-play, 56-yard drive that extended the lead to 28-6. The key plays were a 21-yard pass to tight end Jeff Cottam and a 23-yard run by Hardesty, who got the TD on a seven-yard burst up the gut.
South Carolina answered in just three plays, closing to 28-13 on a 23-yard run by Miles, a 23-yard pass from Garcia to Weslye Saunders and a 31-yard TD strike from Garcia to Moe Brown.
The Gamecock TD was the first Tennessee allowed since the final period of Game 6 vs. Auburn - a span of 10 quarters.
Cunningham sealed the win with a 39-yard field goal that padded the margin to 31-13 with 4:23 remaining. The clinching points were set up by an interception by Vol freshman linebacker Greg King.
Crompton finished 12 of 24 passing for 142 yards. Hardesty finished with 121 yards on 23 carries. Backup Bryce Brown added 60 yards on nine rushes. Denarius Moore led the receivers with 3 catches for 34 yards.
Garcia passed for 300 yards but completed just 25 of 50 attempts.
Tennessee's offense sputtered for much of the evening. The Vols converted on just 3 of 14 third-down tries and were outgained 365 to 341 in total yards.
Ultimately, the fact Tennessee committed no turnovers and scored 24 points off of Carolina turnovers proved decisive.
"The whole pregame speech was about taking care of the ball, especially since it was raining and kind of nasty out there," Kiffin said. "If you go plus-4 - you give no turnovers and you get four - you're going to win a lot of games."
That formula certainly won this one.