College Sports

USC hopes to end Rocky Top hex

COLUMBIA -- There's probably not a way to lose a football game South Carolina hasn't experienced against Tennessee.

The Gamecocks have lost the close ones and the blowouts. They've watched game-clinching fumbles squirt by and last-second field goals sail wide, all with Rocky Top triumphantly blaring in the background for the umpteenth time.

So with the struggling Vols coming to Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday, could this be the Gamecocks best shot at reversing a 100-year trend?

"We have lost to them some," linebacker Eric Norwood said. "But we can't look at it like that."

How else can you see it?

South Carolina opened the series strongly in 1903, shutting down the visiting Vols 24-0. It would be 89 years and 10 games until the Gamecocks left a game against Tennessee with the same winning feeling.

It took even longer for South Carolina to win at Tennessee, finally breaking an oh-for-the-Volunteer State career with a 16-15 victory in 2005 as Josh Brown's 49-yard field goal with 2:45 to go won it for the Gamecocks.

That win, in coach Steve Spurrier's debut season, stirred hope in Gamecocks fans that perhaps their new head ball coach carried the same mojo he'd long held over Tennessee. After all, Spurrier's the only coach to take three different programs into Knoxville -- Duke, Florida and the Gamecocks -- and get out with a win.

Those dreams, though, fell apart the past two years.

"We've played them three close games since I've been here," Spurrier said. "Unfortunately, they won two of them."

And in some of the most tantilizingly frustrating ways.

In 2006, the Gamecocks overcame a two-touchdown lead and were ahead 17-14 in the second half. The Vols rallied back for a 31-24 victory.

Spurrier brought No. 15 South Carolina back to Knoxville a year ago, ready to pile on the growing stack of problems for coach Phillip Fulmer and his unranked Vols.

It sure looked like Spurrier had done it again. The Gamecocks fought from 21-0 down to lead 24-21 with less than two minutes left.

That's when the ol' Vol voodoo hit the Gamecocks smack in the kisser.

First came the heart-in-the-throat fumble: On Tennessee's game-tying drive, Arian Foster fumbled forward past several rushing Gamecocks yet guard Jacques McClendon recovered to keep the Vols alive.

Next was the tying field goal: Tennessee kicker Daniel Lincoln missed a 43-yarder at the end of regulation that was waved off because of a Vols' penalty. Backed up 5 yards, Lincoln struck the tying kick straight through.

Finally came the disheartening OT miss: After Lincoln had given Tennessee a 27-24 lead in overtime, reliable Ryan Succop couldn't do the same for South Carolina, the all-SEC kicker sailing one wide right from 40 yards out.

"They got good athletes over there and they made some plays to help their team win that we didn't," South Carolina quarterback Chris Smelley said.

The victory likely saved Tennessee's season, starting a five-game win streak that helped the Vols reach the SEC championship game for the first time in three seasons.

Fulmer and the Vols probably need another jump start this season. Tennessee is 3-5 overall and could face its second losing record in the past four seasons.

"We're in the age of instant gratification and what have you done lately. I understand that," Fulmer said earlier this week. "Hopefully we can give everyone good encouragement about winning and what we're going to do in the future, with how we play."

South Carolina can't be seduced by Tennessee's problems, Smelley says, or else the Gamecocks won't come out with the necessary focus to win.

"You look at every game that you're going to go out there and compete," Smelley said. "You don't look at their record because Tennessee's a great team."

Spurrier, 10-7 coaching against the Vols, hasn't talked much of Fulmer's struggles this year. Spurrier had decided to spend more energy worried about his team's play instead of what a bigtime win might do for his program.

"Other than that, just another big game, conference game, to see if we can get into the top half of the (SEC) Eastern division," he said.

And maybe stay there a while.

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