COLUMBIA — If Sharrod Golightly reaches to the furthest depths of his memory, he can remember when Tennessee football was a successful program consistently in the national spotlight.
His mind traces to former Volunteers running back Jamal Lewis. Golightly, South Carolina’s starting spur, was 7 years old when Lewis played his final season in Knoxville. He would watch the big, bruising tailback on Saturday afternoons, rooting for a player that came from his hometown.
“I was a big fan of him, coming from Atlanta,” Golightly said.
In the years since, Tennessee’s successful seasons have been few and far between. For most, they’re hard to remember. “Um, I’m kind of young,” Golightly said when asked if he recalled when Tennessee was an SEC juggernaut instead of an annual disappointment clawing for a way back to the top.
When No. 11 South Carolina travels to Neyland Stadium for a noon kickoff Saturday on ESPN, it will face a Volunteer program that barely resembles its rich tradition. In the 14 years since Lewis left campus, the Volunteers hit the eight-win mark just seven times. It’s a staggering fall from grace, considering the Vols had at least eight wins every season in the 1990s.
Tennessee hasn’t won a postseason game since the 2008 Outback Bowl. It hasn’t been to a bowl game in the past three seasons. These used to be annual rites for the program. Not anymore. Since Steve Spurrier became South Carolina’s head coach in 2005, Tennessee has more coaching changes (three) than bowl victories (one).
In its first season under coach Butch Jones, Tennessee desperately hopes for a return to glory. The first six games of Jones’ tenure have been a mixed bag. The Vols are 3-3, winless in two SEC games, but their last game was an overtime loss to then-No. 6 ranked Georgia — a game that gave the program hope entering a bye week.
“Tennessee is a team that has lost to three really good teams — Florida, Georgia and Oregon — and they beat three teams they were supposed to beat, I guess,” Spurrier said. “They’re getting into sort of the meat of their schedule, like all of us are. Huge game, division game, conference game, all that. So hopefully we should be ready to play.”
The Gamecocks are the biggest benefactors from the Vols’ collapse. The two programs traded positions in the SEC East. It is South Carolina now considered an upper-echelon team alongside Georgia and Florida, while Tennessee is in the division’s bottom half.
Spurrier said the biggest advantage has come on the recruiting trail. As USC’s profile climbed, the program became more attractive to top-flight recruits. The Gamecocks have maintained four straight Mr. Football recipients, with Stephon Gilmore and Marcus Lattimore — and soon Jadeveon Clowney — going on to the NFL.
“It has helped us not to lose South Carolina athletes to Tennessee the way it probably happened prior to ‘04 or ’05, somewhere in there,” Spurrier said. “We started to keep the best players in our state, instate between us and Clemson. They get their share, we get our share, and I think that has helped both schools. It has helped them, it has helped us to be able to compete with the surrounding state schools — the Georgias, the Tennessees, the North Carolinas, schools like that.
“Historically, some good players would leave our state and go to FSU, Georgia and Tennessee, schools like that. It’s beneficial to keep the best players in the state.”
It’s beneficial to win head-to-head matchups against divisional rivals, too.
Golightly may struggle to remember Tennessee’s recent past, but he undoubtedly recalls Oct. 30, 2010. The Gamecocks beat the Vols that day 38-24 in Columbia. They haven’t lost since.
To find the clearest example of how realities have changed at USC and Tennessee, look at the decade-by-decade breakdown. The Vols owned the Gamecocks in the 1990s with a 7-1 record. They were 8-2 against USC last decade.
This decade, the Gamecocks are 3-0.
“I guess it’s new territory,” Golightly said. “But you feel like you’re a winner.”