It feels as though it has been about a decade since the South Carolina football program surpassed Tennessee's, supplanting the Volunteers among the SEC East's Big Three. But last season's 14-3 win in Knoxville actually marked the first time that USC had ever beaten Tennessee in consecutive seasons. Whether South Carolina is favored by two touchdowns against this weekend's visitors or not, beating the Volunteers isn't something that most Gamecock fans take lightly, and a win on Saturday is important to solidifying South Carolina's favorable position in the SEC East pecking order.
Throughout the 1990s, Tennessee beat South Carolina by an average margin of 23.1 points, winning all but the first meeting in 1992, Johnny Majors' last season in Rocky Top. As a child whose birthday fell during the last week of October (as the Tennesse game has in all but one game since the Gamecocks joined the SEC), I wasted many a birthday wish attempting to influence the outcome of the USC/UT matchup to no avail, as Peyton Manning and Tee Martin and a horde of Clausens and Colquitts ensured that it was more than just my birthday candles that got blown out each year.
Go ahead. Imagine me donning a birthday hat, adorably cocked to one side as a I sit criss-cross applesauce in front of a bunny-eared television (we had cable growing up, but I'm painting a picture) and watch my childhood heroes get eviscerated year after year by the mighty Orange and White. Those childhood memories have a lot to do with why this game is still so important to me, along with a few, slightly more rational reasons that we'll get to in a bit.
Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier would play the Vols much more closely throughout the 2000s (4.1 average margin in favor of UT) but only managed to beat Tennessee twice, the first coming during Steve Spurrier's first season in Columbia:
That Josh Brown field goal seemed like it was the turning point in the series, but, despite having better teams than Tennessee in many of the following years, the Gamecocks were only able to beat the UT twice more in the remainder of the decade. It wasn't until the historic 2010 season that USC had clearly surpassed the Tennessee program, which was foundering under the stresses of having three different head coaches in three seasons.
As I wrote after the 27-6 win in 2008, the SEC East just cannot, as a matter of logic, consistently support having more than three Top 25 teams, so maintaining an advantage over Tennessee is not insignificant, even if expectations for the South Carolina program have since been elevated beyond merely beating their various orange-clad rivals and being ranked in the Top 25.
If the Gamecocks do beat the Vols on Saturday, it will be three in a row and four of five over Tennessee, and Derek Dooley will need to beat Vanderbilt and Mizzouri to salvage a winning season and, probably, his employment with the State of Tennessee. I dare not get mixed up in speculating on a potential UT coaching search, but any change at this point would be a disruption to what UT is trying to build and would further solidify the Gamecocks' upper hand in this series.
If nothing else, lingering uncertainty over Derek Dooley's job security figures to significantly hamper his ability to recruit. UT's 2013 class currently ranks 9th in the SEC according to 247 Sports, a far cry from the Phil Fulmer-helmed program that was recruiting on the same level Georgia, Florida, and LSU in the early 2000s. The Vols can certainly compete financially with anyone in the SEC, but the state of Tennessee does not have the high school talent of Florida, South Carolina, or Georgia, which puts them at a significant competitive disadvantage. And thanks to James Franklin's improving Vanderbilt program, UT no longer owns a monopoly on the premier talent that does come out of Tennessee.
It is critically important that the Gamecocks win this weekend, not only to preserve their season goals of repeating an eleven-win season, but also to ensure that they securely lock the Volunteers in the cellar of the SEC East. The further we get from Tennessee's glory days in the late '90s without the Vols enjoying a modicum of their past success, the less likely it becomes that the UT football program will return to that level any time soon. And in the zero-sum game of competing in the SEC East, that's good news for Gamecock fans.