To most Vol fans, Tennessee has just three main rivals: Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. The Vols have played Alabama on a yearly basis since 1928, and both Florida and Georgia have become annual rivals for the Vols since the SEC split into division play in 1992.
But do the Vols have a new annual SEC rival now to join those other three?
For decades, Tennessee dominated South Carolina. The Gamecocks won the first meeting between the two teams in 1903, 24-0. But South Carolina would win only one of the next 20 games the two teams played from 1916 till 2004. The Vols lost the first game the two teams played once the conference was split into division in 1992, dropping that one 24-23. Then Tennessee rattled off 12 consecutive wins against the Gamecocks, winning by an average of 18.3 points.
Then Steve Spurrier arrived at South Carolina, and everything changed.
Spurrier terrorized the Vols when he was the head coach of Florida from 1990-2001. Then he became South Carolina’s head coach in 2005 and terrorized the Vols there as well.
South Carolina defeated the Vols 16-15 in Spurrier’s first season as head coach, and the Gamecocks have been a thorn in Tennessee’s side ever since.
The two teams have split their annual series since the 2005 season. Tennessee has won six of the last 12 meetings between the two teams, and so has South Carolina. In terms of annual rivals, the rivalry with South Carolina has been the most evenly-matched series for the Vols in that span.
The last 12 contests between South Carolina and Tennessee have been decided by an average of 7.4 points. Eight of those 12 match-ups have been decided by a touchdown or less, and the last five contests have been decided by just three points or fewer.
Since 2005, Tennessee is 5-8 against Georgia, 1-12 against Florida, and 1-11 against Alabama. South Carolina has been the most competitive, most evenly-matched annual contest the Vols have faced over the last decade in comparison to their main rivals.
Not only have the contests been close, but South Carolina’s head coaches have made it easier for Vol fans to hate the Gamecocks over the last few years.
Spurrier was a Vol villain before he came to South Carolina. Tennessee fans grew to loathe Spurrier when he was at Florida for his constant jabs at the Vols and constant winning against Tennessee too. So when he took over at South Carolina, it was easy for Vol fans to hate the Gamecocks more than they were accustomed to.
After Spurrier came another former Florida coach: Will Muschamp.
Though he’s only been there a season and a half now, Muschamp has already garnered a great deal of anger from Vol fans. Muschamp was undefeated against the Vols while he was at Florida from 2011-14, and he remained undefeated against Tennessee when he helped lead the Gamecocks to a 24-21 win over Tennessee last year.
South Carolina ruined Tennessee’s chances of winning the SEC East in 2016. And they’ll be looking to put a damper on the Vols’ 2017 season too when they travel to Knoxville this weekend. And a win by the Gamecocks would give them the edge in the series over the last 13 years.
So does that mean South Carolina has become a new SEC rival for Tennessee?
Most older Vol fans (and probably even those in their 30s) probably don’t view the Gamecocks as a rival to Tennessee. They grew accustomed to the Vols defeating South Carolina on a yearly basis prior to 2005.
But for younger fans, for fans who grew up watching the Vols in the early 2000s especially, South Carolina has beaten the Vols just about as often as Tennessee has beaten them.
Regardless of how Vol fans feel about them, South Carolina has at the minimum been a pest for Tennessee for more than a decade. New rival or not, the Gamecocks have been a tough team to beat for Tennessee in recent history. And they should give the Vols a difficult fight this weekend as well.