When the SEC expanded to divisional play in 1992 and added the Gamecocks, South Carolina beat the Vols that fall, delivering the final nail in Johnny Majors' three week old coffin. After that, Tennessee won 12 games in a row in the series under Phillip Fulmer. But one of the biggest signs of UT's stumble from the SEC's upper elite is the 2-2 split South Carolina has forged with them in the last four years under Steve Spurrier. The Vols may have exponentially more tradition, but right now they're on South Carolina's level.
The Gamecocks also delivered the final blow to Phillip Fulmer's career in a 27-6 win over the Vols in Columbia 48 hours before Fulmer officially faced the music. At the time, the Gamecocks looked like a team on the cusp of greatness: when they beat Arkansas the following week, they were 7-3 with losses to Vanderbilt, Georgia and LSU that all came down to the final drive. But just as Carolina appeared ready for their breakthrough, reality again stepped forward in their November schedule: they fell 56-6 to Florida, 31-14 to Clemson, and 31-10 to Iowa in the Outback Bowl, losers of their last three after being losers in their last six in the 2007 season.
South Carolina Offense
You'll recognize Stephen Garcia, but not much else. With Chris Smelley playing baseball and Tommy Beecher transferring out as well, Garcia has become option 1 instead of 1A/B/C depending on The Ballcoach's mood. Really, it's still Spurrier, so who knows who else we might see at quarterback this season if Garcia struggles, as he apparently has in camp this month. Carolina does return three starters on the offensive line, but for a team that ranked 113th in rushing offense last year and 97th in total offense (hold your Clawfense jokes, please) there are still plenty of questions and no proven answers. Mike Davis has graduated, leaving Brian Maddox and his 135 career rushing yards as the heir apparent. And with most of their receptions from last year now playing in the NFL, could Alshon Jeffery become the instant go-to guy? Long story short: none of the guys that Carolina must count on have done anything meaningful in a Gamecock uniform.
And while I haven't read or heard this idea from anyone directly related to the South Carolina program or fanbase, I have heard lots of national and SEC pundits say that Spurrier looks less and less interested to them, and that this year could be it. Carolina has been to as many bowls (5) in this decade as they'd gone to in the 80s and 90s combined, so the program has made progress in the Holtz/Spurrier years...but with the offense struggling and the conference tougher than ever, this might be your last chance to see The Visor in Neyland Stadium.
South Carolina Defense
Sounds familiar: as bad as Carolina was on offense last year, they were that good on defense - second nationally against the pass, 13th nationally overall. Problem there is that Carolina must replace both its starting corners, though safeties Chris Culliver and Darian Stewart are back. Eric Norwood (nine sacks last year) returns at LB with All-SEC credibility, and 3/4 of the defensive line returns as well. Once more, the defense will be asked to carry this team...and once more, they may very well be up to the task.
Best Case Scenario for the Vols
By the time we get to this game, you're going to know what kind of team we've got and more or less how good we really are. If the Vols can get to this game at 5-2 (or even 4-3 with losses to Florida, Alabama and a competitive loss to Georgia) then a successful season will still be on the table, and that's an idea that almost certainly has to include beating this team. If Carolina's offense hasn't found its way, Tennessee's defense could again take advantage and give the offense all the help it needs. The Gamecocks have only won once in Neyland Stadium, and there's no reason for this year to make twice...Tennessee wins comfortably and reignites the flame after a loss in Tuscaloosa.
Worst Case Scenario for the Vols
Here again, if the Vols want to return to the SEC's upper elite, they absolutely cannot let teams like South Carolina get accustomed to beating them. But if the Gamecock defense can lock down an anemic Vol offense again, that may be exactly what happens. In what could turn into a battle of .500 teams looking for an edge, Carolina could get one from Garcia and Jeffery, much to Lane Kiffin's amusement I'm sure. Worst case, Carolina gets their second win in Knoxville in three tries, and the Vols are again painfully reminded of how far they've fallen and how much work they have left to do.
Game Importance Ranking: 8.6
For those reasons, this is one of the most important wins Lane Kiffin could get this season. It's not ranked as high because it won't do as much for momentum as beating UCLA or Auburn would...but ultimately, this is a team the Vols have to face every year, and one they cannot afford to fall behind. Letting South Carolina believe they can beat Tennessee on a regular basis would add an additional obstacle in recruiting, and create an additional hurdle the Vols would have to climb to get back to where they want to be. Kiffin needs to keep the Gamecocks behind him...only one chance to get off to a good start there.
Recommended Reading - Garnet & Black Attack