Gene Sapakoff is the oldest, fastest, hardest-hitting sports journalist in S.C. As columnist at The Post and Courier he covers Clemson, South Carolina and other interesting things. He likes food and has won the prestigious Judson Chapman Award 3 times.

Tennessee South Carolina Football (copy)

South Carolina running back Kevin Harris (20) carries against Tennessee in a 2020 game at Williams-Brice Stadium. The 31-27 loss in the season-opener set the tone for South Carolina's 2-8 season. AP/Sean Rayford

COLUMBIA – Tennessee is South Carolina’s underrated rival, stuffed behind Clemson and Georgia and with two great state universities separated only by Asheville bean sprout farmers and a huge, fascinating black bear habitat.

The rocky hills were hardest on head coaches Brad Scott and Lou Holtz. They went a combined 0-11 against the likes of Phil Fulmer, Peyton Manning and Tee Martin.

Will Muschamp was 3-2 against Tennessee but enjoyed the benefit of road-tripping Gamecocks fans showing up at Neyland Stadium with “Keep Butch Jones” signs.

In between, East Tennessee native son Steve Spurrier went 5-5 against the Volunteers, with games usually going down to the wire.

Tennessee results have often set the tone for a South Carolina season, at least in the relative sense, and the Gamecocks-Vols comparison is about to go into overdrive.

Not just with a clash of unranked 3-2 teams Oct. 9 in Knoxville.

But for the next few seasons as a pair of new head coaches attempts to fix SEC East programs in search of hope, or at least a warm-weather bowl trip once in a while.

South Carolina coach Shane Beamer is 44, Tennessee’s Josh Heupel 43.

The Vols finished 3-7 in the COVID-shortened 2020 season with South Carolina 2-8. Tennessee’s 31-27 season-opening win in Columbia was the difference.

“Certainly similar programs,” Beamer said Oct. 5 at his weekly press conference. “Both didn’t have years last year that they wanted to have.”

Both schools fired former Nick Saban defensive coordinators, Muschamp at South Carolina and Jeremy Pruitt at Tennessee.

Both athletic directors went the familiar route to a different result.

Ray Tanner hired Beamer, a former Spurrier assistant, after a groundswell of support put forth by former Gamecocks players.

Danny White hired Heupel three seasons after hiring Heupel as head coach at Central Florida.

Heupel went 28-8 at UCF. Previously, he was an offensive coordinator or co-coordinator at Oklahoma, Utah State and Missouri.

Beamer didn’t have head coaching experience until signing on with South Carolina in December and has never been a coordinator.

SEC Championship goals

Beamer mentioned how both South Carolina and Tennessee lost and gained players in the transfer portal since the end of the 2020 season.

“So it’s probably a fair comparison,” Beamer said. “But I’m sure Coach Heupel would say the same thing that I’m saying. I mean, I’m not worried about competing necessarily with Tennessee 365 days a year.

“We’re trying to do what we can do to make our program the very best that it can be day-in and day-out. We’re all chasing the same goal, and that’s to be playing in Atlanta one day for the SEC Championship. And they’re working hard just like we are to get that done.”

Both with Georgia, Florida and Kentucky to climb over.

We’re not yet halfway through the first season of this latest Gamecocks-Vols saga but Tennessee, a 10.5-point favorite this week, has the edge.

Hendon Hooker alert

The early returns:

Records: South Carolina 3-2, 0-2 in the SEC; Tennessee 3-2, 1-1 in the SEC

Plusses: The Gamecocks have won the games they’re supposed to win; Tennessee’s losses are to Florida and Pittsburgh, Nos. 9 and 16 in the Sagarin computer rankings

Minuses: South Carolina hasn’t scored more than one touchdown in any of its four games against FBS opponents; Tennessee, afraid of a loss, just ducked out of a 2022 home game with Army that was to coincide with a Medal of Honor recipients convention that same week in Knoxville (Akron replaces the Black Knights of the Hudson on the schedule)

Lately: For the Gamecocks’ in a 23-14 victory over Troy on Oct. 2, a running back was the leading receiver (Kevin Harris 49 yards on two catches) and a receiver was the leading rusher (Josh Vann 52 yards on two carries); the Vols gained 683 yards on 78 plays Oct. 2 in a 62-24 rout of Missouri in the other Columbia

Quarterback: Tennessee redshirt senior Hendon Hooker, a Virginia Tech transfer, has a 182.4 quarterback rating, second in the SEC behind Alabama’s Bryce Young (185.6); South Carolina sophomore Luke Doty is 12th in the SEC at 124.0

Beamer has a master’s degree in Sports Management from Tennessee, where he worked as a graduate assistant on Fulmer’s staffs from 2001-2003.

Both Beamer and Heupel have Oklahoma ties. Heupel was the quarterback on the Sooners’ 2000 national championship team and spent 10 seasons on Bob Stoops-led staffs. Beamer was an assistant head coach and tight ends coach under Lincoln Riley from 2018-2020.

The most underrated rivalry on the Gamecocks’ annual schedule starts up again this week with fresh spice on either side of the Appalachian Trail.

Comparisons will continue for as long as Beamer and Heupel have their current jobs.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.

USC coaches vs. Tennessee

Won-loss records for South Carolina head football coaches vs. Tennessee since the Gamecocks joined the SEC:

Sparky Woods, 1992-1993, 1-1

Brad Scott, 1994-1998, 0-5

Lou Holtz, 1999-2004 0-6

Steve Spurrier, 2005-2014, 5-5

Shawn Elliott, 2015, 0-1

Will Muschamp, 2016-2020, 3-2