In school history, South Carolina has the series advantage over three Southeastern Conference programs — Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Mississippi State. In a relatively young rivalry that began in 1961, the Gamecocks have an 18-4 mark against the Commodores
After a 52-14 win in 1995, I put my foot in my mouth when I wrote in Spurs and Feathers that “Carolina would NEVER lose to Vandy.” Of course, three seasons later, they did fall 17-14. Believe me, to this day, friends remind me of that eternally-optimistic prediction gone wrong.
What I remember most about that night, is that it was one of the final nails in the coffin of the Brad Scott era. After a fairly close 38-20 season-opening win over Ball State, the Gamecocks had lost six in a row, including a 24-21 defeat at the hands of Marshall, as they headed to Nashville.
It certainly didn't help Scott that the VU win ended a 22-game SEC losing streak by the Dores. What I remember most about that game is how angry Athletics Director Mike McGee was after the embarrassing loss. He didn't even wait until the team got back on the airplane to give Scott a good 10-minute tongue lashing before he could retreat to the locker room. (I remember thinking that I would have made him walk back to Columbia!)
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Carolina went on finish that dreadful 1998 season with a 1-10 record and Scott's five-year reign as head coach was over. Legend Lou Holtz took over and promptly lead USC to a 0-11 season.
The other two losses were back-to-back defeats in 2007 and 2008, coach Steve Spurrier's third and fourth seasons at USC. I would like to take a shot at explaining how and why this happened.
College football recruiting is essentially a five-year cycle. The new coach comes in, and while there is excitement and enthusiasm about a new direction for the program, the guys who do the heavy lifting in recruiting, the assistant coaches, need a year to establish relationships with the high school coaches. Consequently, unless it's an Alabama or an LSU, the first recruiting class is usually average at best.
The mission for the coach then becomes demonstrating that he can produce a winner on the field. After the 0-11 debacle, Holtz guided the Gamecocks to 8-4 and 9-3 records and back-to-back Outback Bowl wins over Ohio State in 2000 and 2001.
But look at years four and five, consecutive 5-7 seasons. I was in assistant coach Rick Stockstill's office one day, and I asked him why the 2005 recruiting class was ranked as an average one? He got up and walked to a chalk board on the wall and wrote, 5-7, 5-7. “I don't care if you are a living legend,” he said, “recruiting is about winning.”
What the Head Ball Coach did in his first five seasons was win. If you go back and look, the only regular-season non-conference losses were to Clemson. Once he proved he could still produce winning teams like he had at Florida, the recruiting, especially with in-state players, got better and better, which eventually led to the accumulation of talent that has produced the 11-win campaigns of the past two seasons.
Head Coach James Franklin created that kind of excitement for Vanderbilt football in his first season. He guided the Commodores to a bowl game, surpassed the total wins achieved by the program in each of its previous two seasons, and according to analysts, reeled in the best recruiting class in school history.
VU is 1-1 on the season after a close loss to Ole Miss (39-35) in the season opener and the Commodores thumped Austin Peay, 38-3. This is certainly a winnable game for the Gamecocks, but to do that I think they will have to play through the sky-high emotion the Commodores will certainly have at the start of the game, settle in, and play up to their potential.
It's a great time to be a Gamecock!