It was October 4, 2014, half a season into Butch Jones’ second year. Tennessee had just watched an opportunity to beat Florida for the first time in a decade slip away on their home turf after leading 9-0 in the fourth quarter.
Vols fans let their frustrations be known with a not-so-subtle chant that echoed throughout Neyland Stadium so loudly that SEC Network’s broadcast picked it up. As that was happening, then-Florida head coach Will Muschamp infamously said in his post-game interview “It’s great to see all of these people disappointed. I love it!”
While Muschamp was fired later that season, he left Gainesville with at least one feather in his cap: he had gone 4-0 versus Tennessee. Two of those match ups were against Derek Dooley coached teams in 2011 and 2012. How did he do against Florida’s other rivals? Not so good. In fact, the former Texas head coach-in-waiting was a combined 3-9 versus the Gators other annual rivals, LSU, Florida State and Georgia. His inability to beat those teams ultimately cost him his job. But for some reason, even when it seemed impossible, Muschamp could beat Tennessee.
Fast forward two seasons later, and Butch Jones and Tennessee would get their shot at Muschamp again, this time at South Carolina, with everything on the line. It was 2016, and Tennessee had gotten the proverbial monkey off of their backs by beating Florida for the first time in 11 tries. The Vols had also beaten Georgia, and despite hiccups versus SEC West foes Texas A&M and Alabama, the SEC East was theirs to lose as they traveled to Columbia on a Saturday night.
There, they watched Muschamp dash their hopes once again, as the Gamecocks spoiled No. 22 Tennessee’s chances of going to Atlanta for the first since since 2007 in a 24-21 loss that-in a weird twist of fate-gave Muschamp’s former employer a leg up in the East race.
In 2017, there were no championships at stake as both teams entered the game with a pair of conference losses. Still, it was one a seemingly-outgoing Butch Jones desperately needed to win. Tennessee controlled most of the game, but a third quarter touchdown and a pair of late field goals gave South Carolina a 15-9 lead in the fourth quarter. With under a minute left to play, Jarrett Guarantano was able to find Brandon Johnson 30-yards downfield to move Tennessee into scoring position. A few plays later, the Vols were at the 2-yard line facing a 3rd and ballgame with exactly one second left on the clock. Guarantano’s pass slipped through the hands of Johnson, and Muschamp emerged victorious over the Vols once again.
As the 2018 game approaches, both South Carolina and Tennessee find themselves in similar positions. Both teams have just three wins, and if either of them want to reach a bowl game, this one is virtually a must win. This time however, Tennessee has Jeremy Pruitt roaming the sidelines and he’ll look to be the first Tennessee head coach ever to best Will Muschamp.
Both coaches are cut from the same cloth, having been defensive masterminds under Nick Saban’s tutelage at LSU and Alabama, respectively. After winning 9-games and even being projected as a darkhorse in the SEC East, vying to be the team to dethrone Georgia in the preseason, South Carolina needs three more wins just to become bowl eligible.
Pruitt, on the other hand, did not have near the outside expectations that Muschamp and the Gamecocks had coming into the season. But after a strong showing in Athens against Georgia and beating then-No. 21 Auburn on the Plains, bowl eligibility has not just turned into a possibility for Tennessee, but an expectation.
There may not be an SEC East title on the line this time, but Pruitt has a chance for yet another signature road win early in his tenure, and this one could inch the Vols closer to a return to a bowl game only a year removed from an historically bad season.