The second in a series of What If?, this one on a slightly more serious topic than the last.
As we all remember, 2007 was a season of highs and lows for the Gamecocks, a year when we rose to sixth in the polls only to fall flat late in the season. Many of those lows were close calls in winnable games. The most heartbreaking, due to the rivalry factor, was the Clemson game.The loss to Vanderbilt was also pretty regrettable, and I don't even want to talk about the joke of a performance we turned in in Arkansas game.
However, another game has always stuck out in my head about that season. That would be the Tennessee game. This game was significant both for what it meant for us and for what it meant for the Vols. If we had won, we might have been able to salvage our season after the Vanderbilt loss, and Phil Fulmer might just have left Knoxville a year early.
Before we think about how much this game meant to both teams, it's worth remembering how close this game was. There were a handful of plays at the end that, if they had gone our way, would have made the game for us. Two of these were fumbles, one by us and one by the Vols. Let's look at the first one.
As the ESPN announcers say, this was a close call. One could argue that a whistle should have been blown before the fumble, as Davis had been wrapped up by multiple defenders for a couple of seconds. One could also argue that Davis recovered the fumble himself. However, Tennessee got the call. We were in the red zone on this play and thus lost out on three and probably seven points considering how well we were moving the ball. Even if we had only gotten the FG, the Vols wouldn't have been in position to tie with Daniel Lincoln's FG at the end of regulation.
Tennessee committed the next fumble after we took a three-point lead on a long Succop FG. Deep in our territory, Tennessee TB Arian Foster fumbled the ball forward. The ball went past several of our guys only to be recovered by the Vols. Again, if we had gotten it, game over and we win.
Of course, we all k now what happened next: Lincoln missed the game tying FG, but got another chance because one of his linemen false started. What justice there is in rewarding a team for breaking the rules, I surely don't know, although in the Vols' defense, Lincoln claims that hearing the whistle caused him to miss the kick. Lincoln made the second try, made another in OT, and Succop, proceeded to shank a chip shot to cost us the game.
In thinking about what this game meant to us, one could make the argument that the loss the previous week to Vanderbilt or even the poor play during the second half of a win the week before against UNC were what sparked our slide. I'd be willing to concede to those arguments. Against UNC we looked like we were peaking in the first half, only to come out flat in the second, and we continued that poor play against Vandy the next week. This was more or less inexplicable against these two inferior teams and was obviously a sign of things to come. Indeed, it was a sign of what was to come in the first half against the Vols.
However, during the second half of the game against Tennessee, it looked like we just might be prepared to resurrect our season under the leadership of Blake Mitchell. The offense was clicking and the defense was back to playing to its abilities. We came up just short, though. What did this mean for the season's momentum? It's difficult to objectively gauge things like 'momentum,' but considering the perplexingly horrific play the next week against Arkansas, the complete lay-down against the Gators, and the so-close yet so-far loss to Clemson, it's fair to say that this team was missing something after the deflation against the Vols, and that something wasn't just the depth we lost when our defensive starters began dropping like flies.
The Vols, on the other hand, would go on to finish their season with more close wins, including a 25-24 win over Vandy and a classic 4 OT thriller victory over Kentucky, a spot in the SEC Title Game, and win over Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl. Again, you have the old momentum argument: is it possible that a loss against us would have deflated Tennessee's season to the point that they lose to Vandy and Kentucky, don't make the SEC Title Game, and end up in a shoddy bowl? And if that happened, would Phil have survived to endure 2008?
I guess we'll never know, and I'm certainly not basing this discussion on any demonstrable variables. But it's interesting, if sad for a Gamecocks fan, to think about.