So much has happened since Josh Brown nailed an improbable 49-yard field goal to give Carolina a rare win over the Vols last October. It's enough to make a football writer's head explode, but every detail is part of the backdrop to the Cockfight that will commence this weekend in Columbia.
When the Gamecocks upended Tennessee by a 16-15 count in last year's annual meeting of the two division foes, the game was seen as a huge upset and a sign of the Vols' freefall more than a South Carolina surge. A Tennessee season that had already fallen well short of expectations suddenly became a desperate race to finish above .500, and Phil Fulmer's team--with an AWOL Erik Ainge--couldn't stop the bleeding. Ainge--his repuation bloodied and beaten--entered 2006 with a lot of restoring to do, and so far, so good. The Vols, with just one loss, are on their way to reclaiming their good name. An authoritative win in Georgia a few weeks ago put 2005 in the rearview mirror--there can be no disputing that particular reality.
However, the win in Georgia--while putting to rest all fears about a 2005 repeat--has not, by all appearances, ensured Tennessee's return to the land of double-digit win totals. Not just yet. Ainge's shaky three-interception performance against Alabama recalled old and haunting memories from a 2004 season that began to slide at this point in the season, not to mention the nightmare of 2005. If Ainge wants to make sure--for himself, his coach, his team, and his fan base--that last week's Bama bungling was a mere aberration, a speedbump on a sure path back to Tennessee excellence, he must produce a gem this Saturday against coordinator Tyrone Nix and the rest of a South Carolina defense that has often covered Steve Spurrier's backside. With one more good outing--and a win to accompany it--Ainge will put Tennessee in prime position to win ten games in a regular season for the first time since 2003. He will forcefully quiet remaining doubts about his abilities and set himself up for a huge senior season in 2007. The stakes are high for Erik Ainge on Saturday, as the offense that imploded in last year's game against South Carolina must bust out all over in this year's rumble with the Roosters.
From a Gamecock perspective, last year's win on Rocky Top offered a lot of hope to the program that's always played second or third fiddle in the SEC East, lingering in the large shadows cast by Georgia and these Volunteers (and, in the previous decade, by Florida). The breakthrough win in Neyland Stadium--the Cocks' first-ever win over the Vols in Knoxville--undeniably gave a huge jolt of confidence to a team that came one game short of improbably taking home the division crown. This confidence was evident in subsequent wins over Arkansas and Florida, and it left the home folks thinking that Blake Mitchell--who quarterbacked USC to victory in Neyland Stadium--would make 2006 something of a coming-out party.
But that, most assuredly, did not happen.
Mitchell came out of the box this season with the uncertainty and indecisiveness that marked the pre-Tennessee stretch of his 2005 campaign. When Mitchell won in Knoxville a year ago, there seemed to be a possibility that the South Carolina signal caller wouldn't look back, but as this year's disastrous performances against Mississippi State and Georgia proved, Mitchell was simply unable to elevate his game and, by extension, the Carolina offense. This forced Steve Spurrier's hand, and Syvelle Newton entered the stage as a result. And while the transition at quarterback wasn't smooth in the Gamecock camp, it has seemingly fallen into place just in time for a return engagement with the Vols.
Newton--a talented athlete with evident potential--was not the first person asked to relieve Mitchell in the ugly shutout loss to Georgia back on September 9. (Chris Smelley gained that distinction.) But after a get-acquainted warm-up against Wofford and a ramp-up outing against Florida International, Newton confronted the SEC with surprising effectiveness. Displaying previously unseen savvy and pocket presence, Newton merged the talents of a physical specimen with the shrewd instinctual decision making of a born field general. The result has been a South Carolina resurgence that has the Gamecocks nearly in control of their SEC East destiny. If Steve Spurrier's alma mater does indeed polish off Georgia on Saturday afternoon, the Gamecocks will be playing Tennessee for second place in the East... and the chance to take the division outright if it can win out. Mind you, one of those wins will need to come in Gainesville--the locals might be just a bit motivated to win that game--but if South Carolina can step into the Swamp with a title on the line come November 11, that would be a very nice problem to have for the long-suffering Gamecocks. It's a scenario few could have expected--in the Carolina program or anywhere else--after the ugly start to the 2006 campaign.
Aside of the quarterbacking fortunes of these two schools, and their aspirations for bigger accomplishments before the 2006 season passes them by, there's this little side story that might be remotely interesting: the battle between Spurrier and his longtime rival, Phil Fulmer. These two decorated coaches--as a result of the erratic QB play they've had to endure in recent years--have seen their own futures flash before their eyes. In the deepest, darkest valleys over the past two seasons, both men--just as mortal and human as anyone else--have surely wondered, albeit briefly, if their houses were about to collapse. Fulmer's structure very nearly burned down last season, but the architecture remained barely intact and, in 2006, has been newly fortified. Spurrier has faced total train wrecks in each of his first two Septembers in Columbia, but ever the brilliant political strategist (metaphorically speaking, of course), the Ball Coach has been able to engineer a couple of October Surprises that even Karl Rove would be hard-pressed to reproduce.
Their 2006 confrontation has undergone a million metamorphoses in just one year, as the conventional wisdom about their two programs has been overturned and reconfigured to no end. But Steve Spurrier and Phil Fulmer have arrived at their gridiron meeting place with their powers in full display, their outlooks brighter, and their wounds healed. Spurrier--at South Carolina--enters this game with the resurgent team that has its eyes on the prize, but Fulmer--though defeated often by Spurrier in the past--has a well-established reputation for being able to fight back and conquer the Ball Coach just when it seemed the Visored One would never lose to the old offensive lineman ever again. Just when Florida and Spurrier were riding the crest of a five-game winning streak over the Vols in the mid-90s, up came Fulmer to pick off the Ball Coach in 1998 on his way to a national championship. Three years later, with Florida on the doorstep of a BCS title game appearance--not to mention a three-game winning streak over Tennessee--Fulmer coached the best game of his career to knock off Florida in the Swamp, 34-32. While South Carolina is riding a huge wave of momentum, it would be monumentally stupid for the Rooster rooters to think that Spurrier will own Fulmer this Saturday night. The Ball Coach usually sets the pace in this coaching clash, but Phil Fulmer has proven on multiple occasions that he can--and will--get his fair share of revenge. A road win in Columbia Saturday night would be a very satisfying and authoritative way of expunging the bitter taste of 2005 from the bones of Tennessee's head coach. The freefall that began against Spurrier and South Carolina could be avenged by a victory that would propel the Vols to 10 wins, double the win total of the 2005 campaign. It would, for Fulmer, be a perfectly appropriate and poetic way of evening out the scales in what has become a legitimate coaching rivalry of the highest order.
So much has happened to Tennessee and South Carolina in one year since a long field goal stunned the Children of the Checkerboard. Quarterbacks, coaches and programs have endured countless changes in their fortunes, perceptions and prevailing moods. Saturday night, two teams that have fought through adversity will be playing for some very large prizes and redeeming rewards... even while Steve Spurrier's old school is the one holding the trump cards in the SEC East. The winner of this game might not claim its own divsion, but a victory will still go a long way toward affirming the credentials of these two programs that have proven to be nothing if not resilient.