Josh Kendall

This is the team South Carolina must leapfrog for good in 2018

Tennessee athletics director Phillip Fulmer, left, introduces Jeremy Pruitt as Tennessee's next head football coach in Knoxville, Tenn., Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017.
Tennessee athletics director Phillip Fulmer, left, introduces Jeremy Pruitt as Tennessee's next head football coach in Knoxville, Tenn., Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. AP

A former Georgia quarterback criticized the new Tennessee head football coach at SEC Media Days this week, so what does that have to do with South Carolina?

Potentially, a lot.

In the zero-sum game of the Southeastern Conference, the Gamecocks are going to have to climb over some bodies to establish themselves in the top half of the SEC East. Last year’s second-place finish in the division was a good start, giving South Carolina back-to-back seasons in which it improved by three wins and establishing forward progress.

It’s akin to the momentum the program had following three consecutive 11-win seasons from 2011-2013, and that’s a scary thought for South Carolina fans because that progress dried up very quickly. If the Gamecocks are going to make more of this moment, holding on to their advantage against Tennessee will be the key.

South Carolina has beaten Tennessee in back-to-back seasons. Another win on Oct. 27 in Williams-Brice Stadium would mark USC’s second three-game winning streak against the Vols and just the 10th win in the history of this rivalry.

Tennessee is not the only traditional division power struggling at the moment, but it’s where South Carolina fans should focus their attention. It’s hard to imagine that Florida, a national brand in the center of a talent rich state and a smattering of recent success, won’t build itself back into a consistent contender in the division.

Tennessee is a different animal. It’s in a state of fewer than seven million people that will never produce enough SEC talent to power a program on its own. That means the Volunteers have to go take players from other states as they did back in their heyday.

That heyday is a very distant memory now. Tennessee hasn’t won six conference games in a season since 2007. In the 10 seasons since, it is 26-54 in the SEC. The Volunteers have lost four of the past six to Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt! This is not a program that’s just about to get back to the glory days.

Former Alabama, Georgia and Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has been hired to try to turn things around, but there already are voices saying he’s unfit for the job. The biggest storyline at this year’s SEC Media Days came when former Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray told radio station 102.5 FM in Tennessee, “I don’t know if his personality is fit to be a head coach. I don’t. As a head coach, there’s so many things that go into it. It’s not just going out there and coaching. I don’t think he’s the right guy to kind of be the CEO of a corporation. He’s really good managing just a defense and being a defensive coordinator. He needs to prove to me that he can handle the whole ship. For right now, I don’t think he can.”

Pruitt made his first appearance at Media Days on Wednesday and talked about the “power of the T.” At the moment, though, there’s a power outage, and South Carolina needs to take advantage of the opportunity.

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