Tennessee Stat Book
The Tennessee-South Carolina game traditionally has been about the start of something.
For UT, it often has been the start of a charge down the stretch that led to a bowl invitation. For South Carolina, it often has provided the first drop in altitude for the nosedive to come.
That's why it's difficult to imagine the Vols are a long shot to qualify for a bowl and the Gamecocks are leading the SEC East. The matchup seldom has looked so topsy-turvy.
The Gamecocks have proved under coach Steve Spurrier that they can beat the Vols. They also have proved they can compete with the best teams in the SEC on an occasional Saturday.
But since South Carolina joined the SEC, it never has played in the SEC championship game. That's what makes Saturday's game so different for the Gamecocks.
They aren't just trying to win their second game in the last three years against the Vols. They're trying to win a championship. If they can beat UT and Florida, they will win the East, regardless of what happens against Arkansas.
All they need is what they rarely have had: a strong finishing kick.
In 1992, South Carolina's first year in the SEC, it beat UT and won three of its last four regular-season games. That wasn't a sign of things to come.
In the last 18 years, South Carolina is 23-49 in its last four regular-season games. Five times during that stretch, it went 0-4.
Those records reflect more than the Gamecocks' inability to finish what they started. Their schedule has been tilted heavily toward the back end - burdened with UT and Florida, who dominated the division in the 1990s, in the last four games.
The schedule has had just as much to do with UT's late-season success since the league went to divisional play. The Vols have been blessed with November games against Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Throw in a number of pedestrian South Carolina teams and an occasional Memphis or Memphis look-alike and you can better understand UT's 60-12 record in its last four regular-season games since 1992.
Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Memphis are still on the November schedule. So is Ole Miss, the worst team in the West.
As accommodating as that might have looked in most seasons, it's not as inviting now. Even though UT's last four opponents have a combined record of 10-19, you have to wonder whether the Vols will be too beaten down or beat up to make this a typical November.
Selected statistics can be encouraging.
UT recently has been especially vulnerable to competent passing teams. Memphis, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt all rank 75th or worse in passing yards per game.
"And Kentucky?" you ask.
You don't want to know.
Although UT has struggled to produce a consistent running game, Tauren Poole rushed for more than 100 yards against Alabama. Couple that with the probability a young offensive line will improve down the stretch and you might envision the Vols running their way to a bowl bid, particularly if you check the appropriate statistics. Memphis, Vanderbilt and Kentucky all rank 89th or worse in run defense.
"And Ole Miss?"
You don't want to know.
But UT's recent record against its last four opponents is worth remembering. The Vols have won 25 consecutive games against Kentucky, are 21-1 all-time versus Memphis, have won 26 of their last 27 against Vanderbilt and have won 12 of their last 13 against Ole Miss.
Something else worth remembering: In 1988, UT lost its first six games and won it's last five. Four of those victories were against Memphis, Ole Miss, Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
That's why - as bad as this team has looked in losing five of its first seven games - I still have a hotel reservation in Birmingham for the first week of January.
John Adams may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.