Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. Those three teams are widely accepted as the Vols’ main rivals in football. Old school fans would probably throw Auburn into that mix as well, but right now those three aforementioned teams are considered Tennessee’s “big three” annual rivals.
But Saturday proved that it’s time Vol fans start considering adding a fourth team to that list.
South Carolina has proved over the last decade that they’re more than a “little brother” or a pesky irritant to Tennessee’s football program; they’ve earned consideration as the Vols’ fourth main rival.
No, the Gamecocks don’t have the tradition nor the type of program success of Tennessee’s other three main rivals. Alabama has won multiple national titles, as has Florida. Georgia is becoming a power again and has consistently competed for and won the SEC East over the last two decades. South Carolina has never once won the SEC and has never gotten more than 11 wins in a single season in school history.
But in the time of Tennessee football where the Vols are as low as they’ve ever been, they’ve allowed South Carolina to go from a team UT used to beat up on to a program that’s extremely competitive both on and off the field with them.
In the first 24 meetings between South Carolina and Tennessee, the Vols won 19 of them, lost two, and tied twice. When the SEC split into divisions prior to the 1992 season, Tennessee began to play the Gamecocks annually, and they owned them for the first decade-plus of South Carolina’s existence in the SEC. The Vols won 12 consecutive contests over South Carolina from 1993 to 2004 after losing to them in 1992, and most of those games weren’t all that close. Seven of those 12 Tennessee wins came by 14 points or more.
But things changed once South Carolina hired Tennessee villain Steve Spurrier to lead their football program.
Spurrier took over as the Gamecocks’ head coach in 2005, and he immediately led South Carolina to their first win over the Vols since 1992 with a 16-15 victory.
Since that game, the series has never been the same.
The Gamecocks and Vols have exchanged blows over the last decade-plus, and South Carolina holds an edge over the Vols over an extended period for the first time in the series. South Carolina has gone 8-6 against Tennessee over their last 14 meetings, and that includes Saturday night’s 27-24 comeback victory.
In that same period of time, the Vols have gone 1-13 vs. both Alabama and Florida and 5-9 against Georgia.
The last seven contests between Tennessee and South Carolina have been decided by one score. The average margin of victory in those games has been 3.3 points. In that same span over the last seven years, Tennessee’s games against Alabama have been decided by 28.4 points per game (all Alabama victories), their games against Florida have been decided by an average of 10.7 points, and their match-ups with Georgia have been decided by 12.9 points.
It’s not only on the field that Tennessee and South Carolina have become bigger rivals, though; the recruiting trail has become a battleground for the two programs as well.
In just the 2018 class alone, the Vols and Gamecocks sparred over several prospects. On Tennessee’s side, the Vols nabbed defensive lineman John Mincey away from South Carolina, and they also landed four-star Bryce Thompson after he didn’t sign with the Gamecocks on National Signing Day. Cornerback Jaycee Horn was once committed to the Vols, but he ended up signing with South Carolina in the 2018 class and played a big role for the Gamecocks on Saturday.
The current 2019 cycle has seen UT and South Carolina butt heads on the recruiting trail multiple times. Tennessee and South Carolina have gone against each other over recruits such as Joseph Anderson, Cam Smith, and many others.
South Carolina has given the Vols fits on the football field, have a head coach who Vol fans love to hate in Will Muschamp, and are competing with Tennessee for key recruits. That’s a recipe for rivalry, even if Vol fans don’t want to admit it.
For so long, South Carolina was viewed as a guaranteed victory on Tennessee’s schedule. But things change, and new rivalries are born as time progresses. The Vols and Gators weren’t always big rivals, and Tennessee and Georgia weren’t always considered enemies either. Things evolve and change, and we’re right in the middle of another rivalry being woven into Tennessee’s intricate history.
Vol fans may not like it, but this past Saturday and the last decade-plus proves that South Carolina is now a rival for Tennessee.