Tennessee’s secondary looked the best it has all season in Saturday’s lopsided 44-6 win over No. 19 Kentucky. That much is certain.

Perhaps the return of Jaylen McCollough had something to do with it. Maybe the atmosphere and slick black alternate uniforms had it emboldened on the way to another victory over the Wildcats. Either way, the Vols’ secondary made future 1st-round quarterback Will Levis (as far as NFL GMs are concerned) look silly under the lights of Neyland Stadium.

Levis threw for just 98 yards and 3 interceptions. He had more tackles than touchdowns in a game that was never, ever close. Kentucky never led, never tied and entered the red zone just twice on a night that produced just 205 yards of total offense.

And because of it, Tennessee is 8-0 and staring down a Georgia team that is also undefeated and stands in the way of the Vols’ 1st trip to Atlanta since 2007.

Tennessee fans have heard it enough, the same story recycled over and over: The Vols do not have a secondary that can elevate them to a championship level. While that may have been true at the beginning of the season, that unit is taking tangible steps in the right direction with just 4 regular-season games to play.

And there’s still much more work to be done. That’s the funny thing about growth.

Doneiko Slaughter was Tennessee’s most impressive defensive player Saturday night. He really shined in his start at cornerback, perhaps well enough to earn the job moving forward over his usual safety position. He won his 1-on-1 battle against one of Kentucky’s stronger receivers to pick off an underthrown ball by Levis in the 2nd half.

Thing is, Slaughter doesn’t want the cornerback position. Postgame, he admitted he likes playing safety more because he prefers “playing in the box and hitting people.”

Yeah, that checks out. Slaughter made the defensive play of the season for Tennessee in the 1st half, laying a hit stick on Kentucky receiver Dane Key and forcing an interception by linebacker Juwan Mitchell with the Wildcats on the doorstep.

An underappreciated part of that play was Wesley Walker’s absurd hustle. No. 13 for Tennessee was near the end zone when Slaughter leveled Key, but by the end of the play, he was throwing a block in front of Mitchell on Levis near the 50-yard line. A quicker player than Mitchell can likely make that hurdle and continue the play.

Walker has brought that energy all season for the Vols. He had one of the biggest plays of the game in Tennessee’s narrow win over Pitt in Week 2, forcing a turnover on downs with a huge sack late in the 2nd half that eventually led to a Tennessee score.

It’s not an important one, but that’s what sticks out about Tennessee’s secondary over the past few weeks. It has been beaten up, ragged on and straight-up cooked by inferior opponents, but it has kept going. That type of effort is championship level, but it still has to deliver more than just last Saturday night.

Stetson Bennett IV is not a Heisman candidate, but he has taken a step forward from last season’s national championship team. Georgia’s offense looks potent, with the Dawgs averaging the 2nd-most passing yards per game of any team in the SEC. Behind Tennessee, of course.

Georgia does not challenge cornerbacks deep, however. Certainly not as often as Tennessee does. The Bulldogs have just 10 completions of more than 30 yards this season, instead challenging linebackers and defensive backs with complex routes and a brutal rushing attack. And then there’s the Brock Bowers problem.

It’s hard for 1 player to make any team so much more dangerous, but Bowers comes as close as possible. He stands at 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, has excellent hands and has made fools of a few unsuspecting defensive backs already this season. The truth of the matter is, there isn’t anyone on Tennessee’s roster right now who can lock down Bowers. And if someone can, 6-foot-7 Darnell Washington is waiting on the other side of things.

Bowers and Washington are just a few pieces of the puzzle, though. It’s a very balanced system that has accumulated 530 yards of total offense per game, 2nd most in the country, behind only the Vols. It’ll be what everyone expected, and the biggest challenge for this secondary, and defense as a whole, yet.

It’s No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the AP Poll for a reason.