The second installment in the series. Earlier: 2001 Georgia.
When Steve Spurrier arrived on South Carolina's campus in December 2004, the Carolina faithful were looking to take the next step. Lou Holtz's six-year tenure served to move the Gamecocks from laughing stock to respectably mediocre, but a three-year stretch with no bowl trips and a 9-15 conference record left Gamecock fans wondering if they could take the next step up in the SEC - the step that required them to conquer Tennessee, Georgia, or Florida.
Those three programs were the only three worth discussing in the SEC East from 1992-2005. In fact, until the 2010 season when the Gamecocks won the SEC East, no other team aside from those three had ever finished in the top two of the SEC East since its creation in 1992. Since that 2010 season, Carolina has finished second twice more (2011, 2013), and that 2013 season marked the first time where both spots were held by teams other than Georgia, Florida, or Tennessee, when the Gamecocks and Missouri combined to keep those three proud programs out of the top two spots. Amazingly, in over 20 years of trying, neither Kentucky nor Vanderbilt has ever cracked the top two spots.
That was the hierarchy. The most painful part for most South Carolina fans was the unyielding nature of the dominance asserted by the three programs, but particularly Tennessee and Florida. The Gamecocks held only one win over Tennessee in league play going into 2005 - a 1992 victory led by Steve Tanneyhill in their first SEC campaign that resulted in the Volunteers firing Johnny Majors and hiring Phil Fulmer.
Spurrier's first team didn't look all that different from the recent Holtz years at the start of the season. While the Gamecocks looked very frisky in a 17-15 loss in Athens in the second game of the year, they fell flat against Alabama and Auburn, losing those two conference games by a combined score of 85-21. Still, two non-conference wins and victories over Kentucky and Vanderbilt left the Gamecocks at 4-3 (2-3) heading into the final four games - at Tennessee and Arkansas, then hosting Florida and Clemson. Bowl eligibility certainly seemed attainable, but nothing so far indicated Carolina was good enough to win two of the four games it needed.
Meanwhile, the Volunteers looked vulnerable, as they staggered into Neyland Stadium with a 3-3 (2-3) record. Still, with games against Carolina, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Memphis on the horizon, as well as a match-up against Notre Dame in South Bend, Volunteer fans expected to see the ship soon righted. Tennessee had five regular season games left and a bowl game, and a program that won at least 8 games in every year since 1988 expected a string of victories to propel them to a mid-tier bowl game and better days in 2006.
Unfortunately for the Vols, the Gamecocks packed a defense to go along with Steve Spurrier's new offense. After three punts opened the game, Carolina got its first break when Rick Clausen tried to hit an out route against Jonathan Joseph. Don't do that, Rick Clausen.
Two plays later, Blake Mitchell found a guy you might remember for the opening score of the game. 7-0, Gamecocks.
The Volunteers answered with a touchdown drive of their own, on the back of Arian Foster, at the time a freshman back on his way to an 879-yard season with Tennessee. The Volunteers would go on to attempt two field goals in the second quarter, the first made, the second missed after Carolina gifted Tennessee the ball on its own half of the field thanks to a kickoff return fumble by Carlos Thomas. Carolina responded with a missed field goal attempt of its own, and after a Britton Colquitt (may the Colquitt family never reproduce again) had a punt downed at the 2, the Gamecocks conceded a safety that put them down 12-7 at the half.
The teams exchanged five punts in the third quarter, but the Gamecocks ended that quarter driving on the strength of an 18-yard completion to Kenny McKinley on 3rd and 17 from their own 13, followed by a 24-yard pass to Sidney Rice to cross mid-field as the fourth quarter began. Another 27-yarder to Rice put the Gamecocks in the red zone, but the drive momentarily stalled. On 3rd and goal from the five, after two consecutive Steve Spurrier timeouts (not the last time he'd do that in Knoxville, sigh), Blake Mitchell and Sidney Rice found each other one more time:
The Gamecocks missed the two-point conversion so their lead held at 13-12. Tennessee responded with a march downfield to re-take the advantage on the back of another 20-plus yard rush from Arian Foster, and a 43-yard field goal made it 15-13 Volunteers with 7:39 to play.
With the ball down two, Carolina stared at their last chance, and they made good on it. Mitchell opened the series with back-to-back completions to Kenny McKinley and Kris Clark to move the ball to mid-field, and after a penalty hit them both back-to-back again for 10 yards each. With the ball at the Tennessee 34, the drive stalled, and with less than three minutes remaining in the game, Steve Spurrier asked Josh Brown - who earlier missed a 53-yard attempt - to try to put the Gamecocks back ahead. Brown trotted out into the cold Knoxville night, took a swing, and sent the ball floating toward the dead center of the Tennessee uprights. As it sailed over the checkerboard end zone, the only question was - did he get enough of it?
Tennessee gained one first down on their next drive, but three consecutive incomplete passes from their own 40 ended their evening. Gamecocks 16, Volunteers 15.
Carolina went on to beat Arkansas and Florida - the first time they'd beaten the Gators in the SEC, which capped a five-game win streak - before falling to Clemson in Columbia and Missouri in Shreveport to close out the 2005 season at 7-5 (5-3 in the SEC). Tennessee re-gained enough poise to beat Memphis and Kentucky, but the loss to the Gamecocks and a failure in South Bend and against Vanderbilt left them sitting at home through the bowl season.
While Phil Fulmer recovered well enough to take the Vols to a 9-4 record in 2006 and a 10-4 record in 2007 (with an appearance in the SEC Championship Game), the mystique was gone. The Gamecocks lost to Tennessee in both years, a 31-24 defeat at home in 2006 and an overtime loss in Knoxville in 2007, but no longer feared the Vols.
When a wounded Tennessee team came to Columbia in 2008 trying to save Fulmer's job, the Gamecocks answered with a 27-6 drubbing, reeling off 21 points in the first quarter. Five years and three coaches later, Tennessee still hasn't recovered.