True, the Vols' championship dreams are shattered, their Rose Bowl hopes are harpooned and they're desperately hanging onto the bottom rung of national polls by their fingernails, following a two month free fall through the national rankings. With little in the way of post season plans to look forward to, Tennessee's football team can now focus on the privilege of playing college football and attempting to win the fans back.
That process will take time, but it begins by stopping the bleeding. Three weeks without a win in October brings out the worst in Tennessee fans, which, in turn, can bring out the best in Tennessee's players.
Over the past three weeks, the Vols have heard more about their underachieving and poor performances than they heard about their talent and title prospects before the season began. Such a dramatic change of mood has a way of forcing players into a tighter group as a form of psychological protection. They learn to rely on each other and their coaches more than they might when everything is rosy.
The Vols have been in this position before under Fulmer including 1994 when they lost three of their first four games only to rebound with an 8-4 record and Gator Bowl victory. They began the 2000 campaign with a 2-3 mark and fought back to win six straight down the stretch en route to the Cotton Bowl. In 2002, they suffered consecutive setbacks to Georgia and Alabama to fall to 4-3, but rallied to win four of their last five to post an eight-win campaign.
Victories over South Carolina played a key role in salvaging all three of those seasons that could have easily ended up in the red. Fulmer has a perfect 12-0 mark against the Gamecocks and needs to push that streak to 13 straight or face the worst record in his highly successful career as a head coach.
Normally, a team that has lost that many games in a row would have the emotional advantage in a renewal of conflicts, but this one appears to favor the Vols because of their overwhelming need to get the monkey off their backs.
They are also playing at home and at night which has traditionally been a good time and place for UT success. That should be particularly true Saturday with the Vols wanting to redeem themselves before a packed house and a national TV audience.
Add Steve "I-Don't-Know-When-to-Shut-up" Spurrier to the mix with his pregame sarcasm and there's virtually no chance Tennessee won't be emotionally prepared to do battle against South Carolina.
Finally, for all of its failings, Tennessee's offense showed definite signs of life against Alabama. Avoiding mistakes continues to be the key to its success and it's difficult to command a team to not turn over the ball. It's like telling a basketball player to make free throws or requesting a pitcher to throw strikes. Certainly greater emphasis on basic ball security could produce results, but until they show they can do it in game conditions there will always be doubts.
With that said, there's a big difference in losing to Florida, Georgia and Alabama than losing to South Carolina. Spurrier or no Spurrier, I'd take a talented team with an average record at home over an average team with an average record on the road every time.