Standing across the salad bar from each other on Fridays before games, Butch Jones asks his kicker the same question every week.

"You got the game-winner, right?" Jones asks Michael Palardy.

"I got you, coach," Palardy responded Friday.

For the first time all season—and in Palardy's tumultuous career—that scenario came to fruition on Saturday. His 19-yard field goal as time expired propelled the Tennessee Volunteers to a 23-21 victory over No. 11 South Carolina, uncorking years of pent-up emotion from players and fans.

Two weeks removed from a skin-of-his-teeth loss to then-No. 6 Georgia, Jones nabbed the signature win that his two predecessors failed to secure—a victory over a Top 15 opponent.

"Great day to be a Vol," Jones said, hiding behind a contagious smile.

With tears flowing on the faces of players and a jubilant fan base sent into a a long-awaited frenzy, the scene inside Neyland Stadium looked as if the Vols had just won a championship.

For a program that has faced as much adversity and mediocrity as UT has over the years, it may as well have been.

"I am still in disbelief," senior defensive lineman Marlon Walls said. "We have been in a lot of situations like this when we should have won. Our love for Coach Jones and each other pushed us through the day."

The sight of Jones, in Peyton Manning fashion, directing the Pride of the Southland band's "Rocky Top" was a storybook ending for a turbulent past few weeks between the university's relationship with the band.

"I sang it with the band and then I sang it in the locker room," Jones said. "That is the greatest song in the world. It is a pride of who we are."

As validating as the win was for Jones and the fans, nobody felt it more than four fifth-year seniors — Walls, Joseph Ayres, Greg King and Daniel Hood. Lane Kiffin signed the group in 2009, and they stuck together through more turmoil than some powerhouse programs face in a half-century.

"For us four to have been through everything that we have, it's nice to get that one win that we'll be able to talk about forever," Hood said.

Senior running back Rajion Neal, who rushed 24 times for 77 yards and a touchdown, struggled to make sense of the team's emotions after the game.

"Man, I guess you can say you do dream of (the celebration)," Neal said. "To do that with the fans and the band and having all our guys around us and we were all celebrating. It was fun."

Jones' concerted effort to bring back alumni in his "Vol for Life" program never made itself more evident than Saturday, when more than 200 VFLs ran through the 'T.' It made a difference to the players.

"We saw all those VFLs that were here for the game," junior offensive tackle Antonio Richardson said. "I was shaking all those guys' hands earlier and I told them, "We have your back. It's time to get Tennessee back to what it needs to be.'"

The first-year coach concurred.

"You welcome back 200 lettermen, 200 Vols for Life," Jones added. "We had a reception last night. Our former players have been outstanding. That speaks of commitment in the program."

It wasn't just the VFLs and the atmosphere that allowed UT to shock the college football world. According to Jones, it was building off the energy-draining Georgia loss and continuing to preach confidence.

"I thought our team took a valuable step forward two weeks ago," Jones said. "It was gut wrenching, but also our kids believed and they built confidence. Confidence is a powerful thing. Belief is a powerful thing.

"We had pointed to this game for a long period of time and our kids were ready to go."

Fresh off playing two Top 15 teams, things don't get any easier for the Vols.

On Saturday, they travel to face two-time defending national champion and top-ranked Alabama, who has outscored opponents 285-68 this season. After that, they'll travel to play the undefeated No. 5 Missouri and return home to face No. 11 Auburn — the SEC's two biggest surprises this year.

Despite the undeniable emotion of Saturday's win, Jones made it clear that he isn't getting caught up in it.

"Will this (win) have any indication down the road?" Jones asked. "No, it's what we do with it."

But after beating a team garnering national title talk entering the season and notching that elusive marquee victory, Tennessee believes it can play with anyone, and it'll take that mentality into Tuscaloosa, Ala. this weekend.

"Alabama puts on their shoes the same way we do," Richardson said. "We just have to go in there with confidence, execute in practice and believe we can win. It's all about belief at this point."