As Tennessee's men rose to SEC basketball prominence in the past decade, a couple of dependable stepping stones gave the Vols a leg up.
This week, those stepping stones help provide an updated state of the Vol union.
From the 2004-05 season until 2008-09, Tennessee beat Georgia 10 consecutive times. Knoxville or Athens, didn't matter. Chalk up a "W."
Then Georgia hired Mark Fox to replace Dennis Felton. Poor Felton. If Chris Lofton had played at Gonzaga instead of UT, Felton might be coaching the Bulldogs yet. Lofton burned a bunch of opponents, but he was absolutely brutal on Georgia.
Fox, from Tennessee's perspective, has upgraded Georgia into a former stepping stone. Georgia's 68-62 win at Thompson-Boling Arena on Wednesday gives Fox a 4-3 record against UT.
In other words, the days of chalking up an automatic 'W' are over.
Sunday, the Vols visit South Carolina, a program that, until further notice, remains in the steppingstone category.
Tennessee has beaten the Gamecocks 11 times in a row. In the 2007-08 season, the SEC-champion Vols sent coach Dave Odom into retirement with a regular-season sweep and an SEC tournament ouster.
Darrin Horn, Odom's replacement, never beat UT in eight tries. Exit Horn.
There's a new sheriff in Columbia. And I, for one, won't be surprised to see him do for the Gamecocks what Fox has done for the Bulldogs.
Frank Martin was, by all accounts, a home-run hire for South Carolina. In five years at Kansas State, he never won fewer than 21 games.
Four of those years included NCAA tournament bids and K-State advanced to the second round every time. In 2010, the year the Vols played in the Elite Eight, so did Kansas State. The Wildcats were denied a trip to the Final Four by Butler.
Martin's debut at Carolina hasn't been an overnight sensation. The Gamecocks are 2-7 in league play, helping Vanderbilt and Mississippi State prop up the SEC standings.
Martin, though, didn't inherit much. Three of last year's top four scorers departed. And Horn didn't have much better success recruiting than he did beating Tennessee.
If the Vols are to break through and get their first road win of the season, Sunday would be the day to do it.
Should Tennessee come up short, the upshot is that South Carolina is removed from the stepping-stone category sooner rather than later.
Eventually Martin will get better players at South Carolina. His track record suggests he will win. If he could do it at Kansas State in the shadow of the mighty Kansas juggernaut up the road, he should be able to do it at South Carolina.
So the onus is on Tennessee and coach Cuonzo Martin.
If the Vols are going to be a viable force in the SEC — and thus a regular NCAA tournament participant — they can hardly afford to lose ground to the likes of Georgia and South Carolina.
UT is 1-9 in its past 10 tries against Kentucky. The mysterious mastery over Florida isn't likely to hold. Vandy is a give-and-take series.
There is no more SEC East. It's all one sprawling 14-team grouping. Going forward, maybe Texas A&M will matter just as much as the Gamecocks.
Still, South Carolina has been a safe port in the storm for UT. In time, Martin will make it less safe.
Does that time start Sunday?