As most know, the ugly streak dates back to November, 2000, when the Commodores last registered a conference win (24-20 over Kentucky). Two weeks afterwards Vanderbilt fell narrowly to Tennessee at Adelphia Coliseum, and "the streak" was born.
"The streak" has gotten long enough to call to mind another hideous SEC losing streak. Commodore fans may have blocked out the fact that between 1995 and 1998, Vanderbilt lost 22 straight SEC football games. That streak came to an end almost exactly five years ago this weekend-- and the unlucky foil was South Carolina. (Can it really have been five years ago?)
There were almost zip expectations for the 1998 Vanderbilt team, one which entered the season without a quarterback that had ever taken a college snap. On the other hand, with a couple of requisite patsies on the schedule, no one was really expecting a winless season. But after the '98 Dores lost a heartbreaker in overtime to TCU, and were bullied at home by lowly Western Michigan, it looked for all the world as though Vanderbilt was headed for the first winless season in school history.
The week before the South Carolina game, The Tennessean ran a series of jokes about the depths to which Vanderbilt football had sunk.
Brad Scott's South Carolina team came to Nashville 1-6, with the only win coming over Ball State-- but everyone figured the Gamecocks would surely right themselves before a Dudley Field Homecoming crowd. Little did anyone know, but both teams had entered... the Twilight Zone.
Perhaps it was having several members of the great 1948 Vanderbilt team present that brought back a little Homecoming magic. When Ryan Aulds sacked Gamecock quarterback Anthony Wright early in the game to push Carolina out of field goal range, fans began to sense this might be the night Vandy would shake out of its funk. The first half ended in a 7-7 tie.
Greg Zolman, a redshirt freshman making his first career start, turned in a stellar performance with 279 passing yards and hit two passes of more than 40 each. Jamail Carter, a converted quarterback, was playing like a demon at free safety.
When Vanderbilt drove 80 yards to take a 17-14 lead in the fourth quarter, it was the first time all year Vandy had led in the final quadrant. The maligned Commodore defense stiffened twice to stop the Gamecocks. Carter broke up a fourth-down Wright pass with 16 seconds left, and Zolman was able to run the victory play before a roaring crowd.
The win set off a celebration of joy not seen at Vanderbilt Stadium in several years. Head Coach Woody Widenhofer was the recipient of a Gatorade shower. Students swarmed the field and attempted to tear down the goalposts (but Metro police notoriously held them off with pepper spray on account of the Oilers' game at Vanderbilt Stadium the next day).
No one seemed to care that the vanquished Gamecocks weren't a very good team. It was a 'W', a blessed 'W'.
"Oh, man, it just feels so good," senior defensive tackle Alphonso Harvey told The Commodore Report. "I feel three and a half years of bad memories have been erased."
Up in the press box, South Carolina Athletics Director Mike McGee quietly made the decision to fire Brad Scott at season's end. The 1998 Gamecocks would finish 1-10; bring on Lou Holtz. Zolman, meanwhile, would go on to lead the Dores to another win the following week over Duke, and would win 7 of his first 13 games as starting quarterback. Those were heady times.
Five years later, the 2003 clash between the Commodores and Gamecocks presents some obvious contrasts: the game is in Columbia, not Nashville; both teams have different coaches, and Lou Holtz is no Brad Scott.
But some of the similarities are almost eerily similar... the Gamecocks are failing to live up to preseason hopes... Vandy comes in on a 21-game (as opposed to a 22-game) SEC losing streak... it's virtually the same weekend of the year... and once again, it's a Homecoming game.
For once, the intangibles may favor Vandy. The Commodores are feeling pretty good about themselves following a respectable showing against No. 4 Georgia. South Carolina, meanwhile, may still have a hangover from the blistering it took last week from LSU-- a game that had a huge emotional buildup.
Can Vandy spoil the Gamecocks' Homecoming, for the second time in three visits to Columbia? Recall that Bobby Johnson's Commodores came within a blown call last year of upsetting South Carolina in Nashville.
Johnson won't say so, but a victory in his home town, in the stadium where he once sold soft drinks, would absolutely mean the world to this Clemson grad. For the improving Commodores, it might not erase a whole season of bad memories, but it would certainly give them a place to hang their helmets.
Though network television outlets all passed on the Vanderbilt-South Carolina game, the contest is available on pay-per-view and C-band in South Carolina, and should be available in other states for ESPN Gameplan subscribers. Consult your local cable or satellite carrier.