By late October, the Tennessee Volunteers had lost to its three biggest rivals. Special teams goofs had cost the team the Florida game. The Georgia loss was directly attributable to a punt coverage breakdown and a slew of penalties resulting in awful field position for most of the game. Against Alabama, the opportunity cost of two fumbles inside the ten and a muffed punt at midfield combined to result in yet another heartbreaking loss.
The Volunteer Nation began its root cause analysis, and everybody had their opinions. Doesn’t winning necessarily follow excellent recruiting classes? Was it just fluke after fluke after fluke? Was it just because four out of six opponents were ranked in the top 5 at the time we played them? Was it the Spotlight Effect? Was it the season-ending injury to Jason Allen?
One thing we did know for sure: when Steve Spurrier returned to Neyland Stadium for the Volunteers’ next game, he’d be bringing his bag of tricks. While the Volunteer offense seemed unlikely to encounter the suspicious powdery substance, the defense might be able to induce Darth Visor to grimaces like never before because this time his Storm Troopers were armored in garnet and black instead of blue and orange.
Rick Clausen’s excellent performance in the LSU game was growing smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror, and on this day it would melt completely into the horizon. Clausen got the start, but threw an interception on his first pass of the second offensive series. The Gamecocks capitalized on the mistake with a touchdown three plays later.
Ainge then came in and drove the team 72 yards in 12 plays for a touchdown. On the next offensive possession, a possible touchdown pass to Jayson Swain was ruled out of bounds, but the team did drive 32 yards for a field goal. Arian Foster was running exceptionally well, and the offense appeared to have found its rhythm with Ainge.
Like most good news this season, it was short-lived.
The offense failed to capitalize on two South Carolina fumbles in the first half. When the Gamecocks fumbled on their own 30 yard line, the Vols lost a yard on three plays and then missed a field goal. When SC later fumbled on their own 18, the Tennessee offense drove 18 yards only to fumble inside the one yard line.
Look at the mess on that drive chart on both sides of the ball. Interception. Fumble. Field goal missed. Field goal missed. Safety. Fumble. Fumble. Interception.
The Vols were ahead at the half, both in points and in lost opportunities.
Britton Colquitt put together a pretty nice game with six punts for 226 yards. Three of his punts were inside the five yard line and another was inside the 20. You could convince yourself that Arian Foster also had a good game if you were able to repress the memory of his fumble within a blade of fescue of the goal line. He averaged almost six yards on 25 carries for a total of 150 yards.
In the end, though, Spurrier had worked his mojo against the Vols yet again and strolled of Rocky Top with a 16-15 victory.
Might Tennessee, who began the season with national championship aspirations, had just lost to the perennial 4th-in-the-SEC-East South Carolina Gamecocks. They had fallen to 3-4 overall and 2-4 in the SEC. They were 0-3 in the SEC East, which they had been pre-season favorites to win.
The horror of the loss was captured best by GoVolsXtra’s John Adams:
You can’t comprehend the magnitude of the loss unless you know a little something about the winners.
South Carolina lost by 23 points to Alabama and by 41 to Auburn. It ranks 111th in the country in rushing and 85th in rushing defense.
The Gamecocks start two walk-ons on offense. They lost arguably their best player, wide receiver/quarterback/running back Syvelle Newton, to a season-ending injury last week.
Their injury situation only got worse against the Vols. They lost two more wide receivers — Carlos Thomas and Noah Whiteside — to game-ending injuries in the first half.
With all that stacked against them, the Gamecocks would have to play a mistake-free game to have a chance, right?
Not hardly. They lost two fumbles and threw an interception in the first half. They were penalized 10 times.
And still, UT had lost.
Things had gone from downright Rosy to downright ugly on Rocky Top. Players were beginning to openly fuss at each other on the field. Both quarterbacks were dazed, glassy-eyed, and exasperated. Someone painted “Fire Randy Sanders, please!” on the Rock on the UT campus, echoing the chant by a pocket of fans toward the end of the game. Local radio reported that some fans were throwing objects at the players as they left the field.
Having had an emotional meeting with his family immediately following the game (audio link), Sanders fell on his sword the following Tuesday. He would serve out the rest of the season, but would give up the offensive coordinator role and play calling duties. Players responded to the news with shock and hostility, some engaging in a full-on rant with media microphones recording it all. Many media guys and bloggers could relate, some saying they had the wrong guy or that it was a good start.
Not pretty. Not pretty at all.
And it wasn’t over yet.