KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — On one side is the Tennessee River, on the other is the intersection of Phillip Fulmer Way and Peyton Manning Pass. In between hulks Neyland Stadium, with most of its 102,455 seats bedecked in that certain hue of Creamsicle orange, six national championships and 13 SEC titles commemorated on ribbon boards and the peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains poking up in the distance.
It’s an impressive place, even hours before “Rocky Top” begins to play over and over and the Volunteers run out through that T. But looking down on those checkerboard end zones, it’s hard to not think of another game between Tennessee and South Carolina, this one at Williams-Brice Stadium a year ago. Because it was that contest — complete with the Vols rallying from two touchdowns behind in the final 4:42, and the Gamecocks suffering a third fourth-quarter collapse — which led USC to the point where it is now.
As in, with Steve Spurrier somewhere other than the visiting sideline, and the Gamecocks looking for a new head coach. The Head Ball Coach was 69 then, and we all knew he wouldn’t wear the visor forever. But the Tennessee game was the beginning of the end. The Tennessee game prompted him to leave his post-game press conference without taking questions, the Tennessee game led him to admit the next day that he had pondered retirement. The Tennessee game led us to the two-to-three-year plan, then the four-to-five-year-plan, then the “enemies” rant, and finally to the announcement of his resignation Oct. 13.
Looking back at that saga, there are so many what-ifs. What if Brison Williams had knocked down the Maty Mauk deep ball to Bud Sasser, and prevented the Missouri comeback that shattered USC’s fourth-quarter confidence for the rest of the year? What if Pharoh Cooper hadn’t fumbled a potential game-tying two-point conversion eight weeks ago against Kentucky, and South Carolina had started this season 2-0? But the what-ifs loom largest in the case of the Big Orange, and that game last season in Columbia, and what might have happened had the Gamecocks simply been able to run out the clock.
Win that game, and maybe Spurrier doesn’t open the Pandora’s box of imminent retirement, maybe USC holds on to a few more commitments and gets to a better bowl, maybe an eight-win Gamecocks program carries a bit more momentum going forward. But would it have completely solved the talent and recruiting problems which have this team needing to win three of its last four to prevent its first losing season since 2003? Would it have completely eliminated the speculation over when a 70-year-old head coach might call it a career? Would it have rectified all the issues on both sides of the ball that have this team standing at 3-5?
Certainly not. The fundamental problems South Carolina faces now weren’t caused by that Tennessee game — they conspired to create it. Prevent Volunteers quarterback Josh Dobbs from throwing that tying touchdown pass to Jason Croom with 11 seconds left and completing a comeback which according to ESPN Stats was 99.1 percent improbable, and maybe USC is in a little better shape today. A little. But not much.
So here we are now, with interim head coach Shawn Elliott trying to squeeze every bit of potential he has out of this bunch, and doing a commendable job of it thus far. USC certainly showed something last week, in taking Texas A&M to the final series of the game as 16-point underdogs. Can the Gamecocks remain competitive the rest of the season riding emotion and misdirection plays? On paper, the matchup here today looks terrible. Dobbs is a more grown-up version of what the Gamecocks saw last week in Texas A&M quarterback Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurd is the kind of back who’s gashed USC in the past, and the Vols run the kind of system the Gamecocks have struggled to slow for almost two years now.
But offensively, at least, Elliot seems to have hit on something that allows USC to stay competitive despite its continued shortcomings on defense. This is team is playing loose and feeling much more confident about itself, and that’s saying something. They’ll also be heavy underdogs in every game they have left save The Citadel. Last week offered the first real indication of what the Gamecocks will be like under Elliott, and Texas A&M went in blind. Tennessee has film of that game, which cannot be overlooked. There are no surprises anymore. Remaining competitive will grow exponentially harder as the weeks go on.
Meanwhile there’s the shadow of the coaching search. I’ve spoken to a few people this past week with knowledge of how these things work, and they surmise that athletics director Ray Tanner will soon begin to meet with prospective candidates, if he hasn’t already. These things are done very under the radar, with search firm Eastman and Beaudine arranging clandestine meetings, perhaps in airport hotel conference rooms in cities without a connection to either party. The old ask-the-other-AD-for-permission process is antiquated at best. The quieter things are kept, the more options a school has. No AD wants to be boxed in like Florida’s Jeremy Foley was last year, when media were waiting for him at a Fort Collins airport as he arrived to meet with Jim McElwain.
All that remains to play out — though there will certainly be plenty of interest in next weekend’s game between Houston and Memphis, coached respectively by Tom Herman and Justin Fuente, two names on the radar of every major-conference program with a job opening. Saturday afternoon, though, the Gamecocks prepared to play in that big orange bowl at the intersection of Fulmer and Manning, with Steve Spurrier somewhere far away.