Make no mistake about it, when Tennessee Football kicks off against the South Carolina Gamecocks Saturday, it’ll be the most season-defining game of the year and the one with the most long-term implications. No, Florida, Georgia and Alabama don’t come close.
From the most basic perspective, after a loss to the Gators, a loss to South Carolina would put 6-6 or even 5-7 on the table for the Vols. UT will be underdogs against the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs, and the Texas A&M Aggies, Kentucky Wildcats and Missouri Tigers would all be toss-up games.
However, it’s even a bigger deal when it comes to recruiting. The downfall of Tennessee Football really began when Georgia hired Mark Richt in 2001. That cut off UT’s best recruiting pipeline state. However, South Carolina was already fading two by hiring Lou Holtz in 1999.
Consider, all four starters on the 1998 national championship team’s defensive line came from South Carolina. Albert Haynesworth also came from there. This state was crucial to UT, and the first cracks in the program Phillip Fulmer built were Georgia icing off their state and the Gamecocks becoming competitive.
Then it got worse. Steve Spurrier went to South Carolina in 2005, and recruiting into that state was all but shut off. The Clemson Tigers hired Dabo Swinney in 2008, fully icing out that state, and with that, the decade of dysfunction was born.
Even as Spurrier stepped down in 2015, Swinney was in the process of unleashing a dynasty. However, i recent years, that dynasty has begun to fade. Clemson hasn’t made the College Football Playoff since 2020, the same year the Vols were able to land future Biletnikoff Award winner Jalin Hyatt.
Now, more than any point since 1999, Tennessee Football has an opening to build a pipeline into South Carolina, particularly with Clemson at 2-2 right now and their win over Swinney’s team in last year’s Orange Bowl. However, to do so, they have to deliver a knockout blow to South Carolina.
Last year’s loss wasn’t just devastating in terms of what it cost the Vols for that season. It was a killer on the recruiting trail. Elite receiver Mazeo Bennett, who hails from South Carolina, had committed to the Vols after their Alabama win. He decommitted three weeks after that South Carolina loss and committed to the Gamecocks.
Four-star offensive lineman Kam Pringle, another South Carolina kid, decided to stay in-state and commit to Shane Beamer’s program a month later. If the Vols beat South Carolina, it’s likely they land both Bennett and Pringle, which would take their recruiting class from current top 10 status to top five overnight.
Simply put, Tennessee Football has to completely block off any chance of South Carolina becoming elite if it’s going to have the success it needs on the recruiting trail. That’s why Josh Heupel and co. need to do everything within their power to prove that last year’s game was a fluke.
If they win Saturday, they could survive an 8-4 or 9-3 season with losses to Florida, Georgia and Alabama and an upset somewhere else. It’d be like a transition year with Nico Iamaleava waiting in the wings to take over and dominate in 2024.
On the other hand, a loss clearly establishes South Carolina ahead of Tennessee Football in terms of credibility on the recruiting trail, and it could derail the Vols’ season, hurting recruiting even more. Simply put, by any stretch of the imagination, this is UT’s most important game of the year.