HOOVER, Ala. — The SEC began a new era Tuesday when conference newcomers Texas A&M and Missouri contributed to a media-days attendance record. On the same afternoon, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier reflected on the beginning of another era 20 years ago.
Arkansas and South Carolina were the newcomers then; divisional play and a conference championship game were just as new; and Spurrier was the head Gator.
"We lost our first two (SEC) games, and Tennessee managed to lose three games that year somehow," Spurrier said. "We had to beat Vanderbilt to win the division."
That was the easy part. The Gators won 41-21 and celebrated by taking pictures of Vanderbilt Stadium.
"We were a happy bunch of Gators," Spurrier said.
The league has changed since then — notably, where it matters most, at the top.
Alabama beat Florida in the first SEC championship game in 1992 and upset Miami for the national championship a month later.
That was the SEC's first national title in 12 years. Now, the SEC has won six consecutive national titles, and no one can question its prominence on the college landscape.
But one thing hasn't changed: Spurrier remains a Tennessee nemesis.
It's not like in the 1990s when Florida and UT were top-10 programs and a cut above the rest of the SEC East. Spurrier's team is still in the Vols' way, though.
UT's current rebuilding job is hard enough after all that has gone wrong the past seven years. It's harder still because of what a once mediocre South Carolina program has become under Spurrier.
The Gamecocks won the East in 2010. They won a school-record 11 games last season and finished ninth in the final Associated Press poll.
Spurrier said Tuesday the Gamecocks would be good again this season. Consider that as high praise from a coach who rarely parceled out plaudits when South Carolina first began eking into bowl games on a regular basis.
The Gamecocks aren't comparable to what the once-mighty Gators were. But they're superior to the Vols and a long way from the 1990s.
When UT won its national championship in 1998, the Gamecocks were 1-10. The next season, they were 0-11.
Imagine what a South Carolina like that could do for the Vols these days. Florida just went 7-6, its worst record since 1987, and might not be significantly better this season under second-year coach Will Muschamp, who is reminding Gators fans more of Ron Zook than Spurrier or Urban Meyer.
With the current Gators and the Gamecocks of the late 1990s, the Vols would enter the 2012 season as the most likely threat to frontrunner Georgia for the divisional title. Instead, South Carolina — not Florida — poses a greater challenge to UT.
Spurrier has a defense anchored by a couple of first-round NFL draft prospects at end; a Heisman Trophy candidate (Marcus Lattimore) at running back; and perhaps, most importantly, a quarterback (Connor Shaw) he can trust to make good choices on and off the field.
He also has a fan base whose transformation has been as dramatic as the program's.
After a close loss to Auburn in 2006, South Carolina fans applauded their team as it left the field. The fan reaction upset Spurrier almost as much as the defeat.
"A lot has changed at South Carolina in the last seven years," he said. "I had a couple of friends who have been there 30 or 40 years. One of them said, 'We used to go to the ballpark hoping for a good game. If we were playing Florida, Georgia or Tennessee, we were just hoping to not get blown out.
" 'And now, we're coming to the ballpark thinking we're going to beat those guys.' "
From a UT perspective, that's a new South Carolina and an all too familiar Spurrier.