I didn't take a moment’s reflection to pick my favorite South Carolina-Tennessee game – it's the 16-15 USC victory over the Vols in 2005.
It was, of course, coach Steve Spurrier's first season at USC, and the beginning of the end of Philip Fulmer's career at UT. The preseason third-ranked Volunteers went 5–6 that year, losing to their in-state SEC rival, Vanderbilt, for the first time in his 14-year tenure. It was also the end of a 12-year losing streak to Tennessee and the first win for the Gamecocks in Knoxville.
Carolina scored first on a 19-yard TD pass from Blake Mitchell to Sidney Rice. UT answered with a 1-yard plunge from running back Arian Foster.
Tennessee took a 12-7 advantage into halftime, by virtue of a field goal and a safety. Neither team scored in the third quarter, but the Gamecocks took a 13-12 lead early in the fourth on a 5-yard Mitchell to Rice hookup (the two-point conversion try failed).
After the Vols went ahead 15-13, Carolina's Josh Brown made the kick of his career with a 49-yarder with 2:45 left and the Gamecocks held on for the win.
Of course, the win made it a memorable game, but what I really remember was the reaction of the Tennessee faithful. I looked up during the TV timeout, and Vols fans were hitting the exits in droves. I remember exclaiming to a friend standing next to me on the sidelines, “Where are you people going? We're South Carolina, there's 2:45 left in the game, and a field goal beats us.”
On the ride home, it dawned on me, why many of UT's fans had accepted their team's fate and started for home. This was a Steve Spurrier-coached team that wasn't going to lose the game.
Want to understand what part character had to play in USC's win that night, how it affected UT's recruiting and led to Fulmer's dismissal after a 5-7 2008 season and why the Gamecocks are 4-1 against Tennessee the last five seasons? In a 16-month period between 2004 and 2005, Tennessee had more than 20 players arrested. You don't think that turned off more than a few mamas of top prospects over the next three years?
In the five years since 2008, Tennessee has gone through a coaching carousel, with the infamous one-year stay by Lane Kiffin, three seasons with Derek Dooley and now Butch Jones. In that same time period the HBC has fine-tuned his staff, which has consistently upped recruiting. USC has brought in kids with outstanding character, who are also talented football players.
It's a drum I've been beating for a number of years now, but USC's program has the best combination of the above two elements in the history of the program. If you think that the so-called “distractions” of the past few weeks have affected the players, let me assure you that's not the case - they believe and trust in one another unquestionably.
The Gamecocks are also not blind or stupid. They know they have not played their best football. Maybe it's taken a little longer than they anticipated for things to come together, but they're working on it. They are approaching their issues with the right attitude and effort, and they just want to go play the next game and see if they can play better.
All this said, what do I think about this trip to Knoxville? For the reasons I stated above, I believe the Gamecocks are a more talented, better-coached team. You always have to respect a program that has won six national championships, playing at home, but I'm confident I'll see the Vols fans hitting the exits before the final gun once again.
It's a great time to be a Gamecock!