Even though South Carolina and Mississippi State (formerly Mississippi A&M) both began playing football in the mid-1890s and were co-members in the old Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association and the Southern Conference - which is as old-school, Southern-fried as you can get - strangely the Gamecocks and Bulldogs never met on the gridiron until USC joined the SEC in 1992.
State, of course, was one of the original thirteen SEC members who broke off from the SoCon in 1932; Carolina cleaved to the Southern until joining the ACC in 1952 as a charter member, and ultimately going the independent route from 1971-1991.
I'm not sure if anyone still living knows why USC-MSU never scheduled a game for over 90 years. Perhaps it was an inability to find open dates, or maybe inertia, or perhaps just being careful with travel budgets. It could be that we both just had other fish to fry. Still, the Gamecocks had met every other SEC squad at least a few times over the decades (including ex-members Tulane, Sewanee and, of course, Georgia Tech) so it will remain a mystery for now how the Cocks managed to avoid initiation into the Cult of the Cowbell for as long as we did.
Younger fans may forget that when we joined the SEC, State was one of our permanent cross-division rivals (the other being Arkansas) under the old "5-1-2" system that prevailed from 1992-2002 [5 division games, 1 rotating game from the other division, 2 permanent cross-division rival games]. When the league went to the "5-2-1" in '03, MSU and USC were split-up (we kept the Hogs and they kept the Kentucky Wildcats) and we met each other on the regular rotation until the 2012 expansion. This will be our first match-up since 2013 and is the Gamecocks' "return" game to Starkville from that last tilt. State dominated the rivalry in the 1990s (2-6), but since the turn of the Millennium its been all Carolina (7-0).
The Magnolia State Bulldogs - who call themselves the Dawgs, too - play in venerable Davis Wade Stadium. Some of you older fans will remember it as "Scott Field" up until 2000 when it was renamed. Built in 1914, it is the second oldest stadium still in use in all of FBS (only behind Georgia Tech) and the fourth oldest in the country. Expanded in 2014, it is a swank 61,000+ facility. I'd love to be heading out to see this weekend.
Top Five Bulldog-Gamecock Games (from USC's Perspective!)
Now that we got the history lesson out of the way, here are the top 5 contests between the Maroon & White and the Garnet & Black - at least from the Palmetto State side of things.
5. October 14, 1995 @ Starkville.
In Brad Scott's second season, the Cocks walloped Jackie Sherill's State squad 65-39 - our first SEC win in a season that was marked by lots of offense but a porous defense. Steve Taneyhill, our brash and beloved "Crazy Yankee QB," was in his senior campaign. His hair was a little shorter but he had been lighting it up from the pocket. Unfortunately, despite our success in 1994 (7-4, 4-4 SEC, our first bowl win), the '95 Gamecocks were a disappointing 2-3-1 coming to Starkville to meet a 2-4 MSU team. Most of the country probably ignored the game - a
JP nooner a nightgame - but we needed a victory badly. Taneyhill answered the call, exploding for 473 passing yards and 512 yards of total offense [which remain single game school records even to this day] on 38 completions [still our most ever against a league foe]. I am pretty sure Taneyhill was also awarded conference player of the week honors. Even though the game is one to remember for the records, we couldn't build any momentum off it going into the "Orange Crush" of No. 6 UT, No. 3 UF and Clemson; despite Taneyhill's 3,095 passing yards and 29 touchdowns in the '95 season, we ended the year a miserable 4-6-1. The MSU game was definitely a bright spot, however.
4. October 15, 2011 @ Starkville.
USC fans will remember that Steve Spurrier's Cocks were 5-1 and ranked No. 15 entering this game against Dan Mullen's 3-3 Bulldogs. However, there was turmoil for Carolina, as QB Stephen Garcia had just been kicked off the team the prior week. His then-unproven backup, Connor Shaw, was making only his third career start. Still, Marcus Lattimore was our all-everything back and we expected to come in and take care of business with Bully; for his part, Mullen decided to force Shaw to beat State through the air and sold out to stop Lattimore. To our consternation, Mullen's plan was working, and then to our dismay, # 21 went down on a freak (but clean) blocking play in the 4th quarter while we trailed 12-7. Everyone hoped it was just a sprain - only to find out later it was a torn left ACL which would sideline Marcus the rest of '11. Shaw could have folded, but showing signs of what made him great, he held tough and hit Alshon Jeffery for a 4 yard TD pass with 3:50 left to give us a 2 point lead (where Jeffery was viciously interfered with, having his helmet ripped off coming down, but no PF of course). D.J. Swearinger sealed the "W" with a timely pick on MSU's last minute, desperation drive. This is the game where I felt Shaw grew into the QB we came to know and love; it was "his" team after that moment, and he made sure the Cocks didn't unravel (like we had at UK in '10 when Lattimore had to leave that contest). I think the whole 33-6 run we enjoyed from '11-'13 hinged a lot on this game, which is why it is included on this list.
3. October 17, 1992 - Columbia.
To say that Carolina wasn't ready for the SEC in 1992 would be an understatement. Only a few years removed from the steroid scandal and the death of Coach Joe Morrison, we had fallen a long, long, long way from the our strong 1984 and 1987-1988 seasons. Coach Sparky Woods, imported from App State to clean up the mess, had kept us the equivalent of a lower-to-mid-tier ACC program through 1989-1990 with a few nice wins and more head-scratching losses. Unfortunately, we finished '91 - our last year as an independent - a dismal 3-6-2 and were now being thrown into the cauldron of SEC play at a time the whole league was on an uptick. We started '92 by being thoroughly manhandled by Georgia, Arkansas and Alabama - and losing close calls to ECU and UK - putting us on a D-1 worst 10 game losing streak. A lot of SEC fans wanted us unceremoniously ejected from the league; a lot of Carolina fans wanted Woods gone (and some, quelle horreur, even wanted us to hire Danny Ford after Clemson had let him go). Worst of all, going into the bye following the Bama game, in one of the darkest chapters in USC history, the players revolted against Woods - in essence"voting" him out - which caused us even more national humiliation. To his credit, Woods held firm; he told the team if anyone wanted to leave, there was the door and made them return to practice.
Also to his credit, Sparky decided to give Steve Taneyhill, a freshman from Altoona, PA - with flowing locks and brash ways - his first start against Jackie Sherrill's No. 15 ranked Dawgs. The Bulldogs were 4-1 and with victories over ranked Texas and Florida squads; MSU no doubt came in expecting an easy road-kill. In front of just 55,000 die-hard fans, Taneyhill did the unthinkable - leading us to a 14-0 half-time lead. After State scored on the opening drive of the 3rd (missed PAT), Taneyhill answered on the ensuing series by hitting WR Don Chaney on a 43 yard scoring pass to seal a 21-6 win- our first ever SEC victory and snapping the losing skid. Taneyhill's stat line (7-14, 183 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT), while respectable, doesn't tell the whole story. We'd found our new leader under center, and both the O and D came alive and began trusting the staff. Incredibly the '92 Cocks would go on to win 5 of their last six (including an equally improbable win against No. 16 UT in two weeks and a big win at Clemson reversing a four game losing streak to the Tigers; our only loss to Steve Spurrier's No. 11 UF team at the Swamp by a narrow 9-14). The respectable 5-1 finish (5-6 on the season) garnered us enough positive national attention to even cause some other struggling coaches, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, to hope their teams would revolt, too.
To my shame, your correspondent, a penniless grad student at the time, missed the historic W because he decided to go home for the weekend to see mom and dad. Sigh. Yeah, I blame it on laundry.
2. September 23, 2000 - Columbia.
Most Carolina fans remember the play as the "the Fade" or "the Fade to Glory."
Having snapped the national-worst 21 game losing streak that haunted us from 1998-1999, the Gamecocks in their second season under Lou Holtz found ourselves an improbable 3-0 - including a surprise 21-10 victory over No. 10 UGA. Were we for real, or a just a flash in the pan? Jackie Sherill brought in a strong 2-0 Bulldog squad to Columbia (25th in the coach's poll) to answer that question; the Bulldogs would finish the 2000 campaign 8-4 and knock off No. 3 UF and No. 15 Auburn in the ensuing weeks after playing the Cocks, so there was no doubt they were a very real team. Despite a strong game by starting QB Phil Petty, it certainly looked like Bully would go to 3-0 on the backs of ex-USC assistant Joe Lee Dunn's withering Maroon & White "D". In front of 80,000 screaming Carolina fans, we were trailing 19-13 in the fourth when Petty (who racked up an impressive 305 passing yards on the day) drove us down to the State 25. We needed a TD to tie and a PAT to win; a FG was meaningless. Petty's first two passing attempts fell incomplete, then, on third-and-10, Petty went down with an ankle injury. It was fourth-and-10 and the Gamecock faithful held their breath as a little known and rarely used back-up, Eric Kimrey, took the field. Only 4-8 on the season in limited action, and with one INT, Kimrey had enjoyed a great high school career at Columbia's Dutch Fork H.S. (where his dad was the coach) but had not taken a snap for Carolina during the whole State game. He was coming in cold and it was now all on his arm.
What happened next is shrouded in Gamecock lore. David Cloninger tells the story best in a piece he wrote back in 2010 commemorating the tenth anniversary of the game. Regardless of what Kimrey exactly told the coaches, with 4:47 remaining he called his own play - and what a play it was. Kimrey hit Greenville's Jermale Kelly and Ryan Bethea kicked the PAT for us to go up 20-19. It was a miracle. The final score would be 23-19.
How important was the game? True, we lost at Alabama the next week, and dropped all three games in the Orange Crush (close ones to UT and Clemson, but a 20 point shellacking by the Gators). Still, beating MSU gave us our first ranking (No. 23) in seven years - ironically we had last been ranked when Brandon Bennett went over-the-top-in-between-the-Hedges in the famous "Lay Down" play against UGA. By beating MSU, we would finish with a winning conference mark [5-3] for the first time since joining the SEC. Without the MSU win, would we have had been invited to the Outback Bowl and given the opportunity to beat Ohio State on New Year's Day? Probably not, and we would have lost out on huge national exposure as a result.
Some of you are probably asking why "the Fade" game isn't # 1 on this list, and it would have been almost certainly except for what happened almost a year later to the day.
1. September 20, 2001 @ Starkville.
Its hard to believe its coming up on fifteen years. Some of you might have been too young to remember it as it unfolded live on our TV sets and have learned about the way I learned about Pearl Harbor - as a history lesson. Heck, some of the worst parts aren't even shown any more on television by tacit agreement of the networks. But September 11th was a watershed moment and the shock and the pain of it was still palpable when it came time for the No. 18 Gamecocks to meet No. 17 Mississippi State (coach's poll ranks) for the ESPN Thursday night game of the week. Still mourning the death of 2993 Americans and fearing possible after-attacks, as well as now dealing with the first of the anthrax letters, the nation remained in agony. Moreover, all major sporting events had been cancelled - including the NFL, MLB and major CFB. Baseball would not return until September 21 and the NFL to the following Sunday/Monday, so a ranked match-up between MSU and USC would be the first nationally televised game in either football or baseball following 9/11 (remember this was before the NFL Network had moved in on CFB's lock on Thursday night football). For Americans who loved sports, this SEC tilt was a chance for a few hours of normalcy; millions would be watching and wanting something to make things seem right again. Both Carolina and State delivered.
The final score was irrelevant (USC won 16-14). Both teams won that night when the Gamecocks and Bulldogs- along with military service personnel - entered Scott Field together to America while holding a giant Stars & Stripes. Coach Sherill's daughter sang the national anthem and everyone joined in God Bless America. I dare you to watch that whole video without feeling a tug of emotion even today. When I wrote about the game back in 2013, I said:
No one could be more proud than the MSU folks that night. State fans came decked-out in Red, White and Blue along with their traditional Maroon and White. They chanted "USA-USA" instead of ringing their beloved bells. American flags were everywhere. The emotion was palpable through the TV screen. I can only imagine what it must have felt like inside.
That day, there were no South Carolina fans. There were no Mississippi State fans. They were all united under one flag, as one people, one nation.
For the most moving and emotional pre-game in SEC history, and for what part it played in helping to heal a grieving nation, the 2001 MSU-USC match is the greatest in our short but illustrious series.
PS - In case you're wondering which USC game the Hail State crowd might point to as their favorite on-the-field W, Thomas White of Maroon & White Nation looks back at the 1998 game.