Pivotal games remain if …

Marvin WestFeature, westwords

Wow, Alabama is pretty good.

That may be the best offense we’ve seen – strong, balanced, excellent speed, superior quarterback. The recycled analyst has done one heck of a job.

Tennessee regressed. It brought back the bad, old days. Talent mismatches were obvious. Some were overwhelming. Mistakes may have made the Crimson Tide look a little better than it is. Twenty-eight points in the first quarter would be a lot in a practice game.

It was a pleasant surprise that Alabama shut it down in the fourth quarter and just ran the clock. Fifty-eight points were a record. A hundred might have been humbling.

Let us suppose the worst is over. Let us continue to believe the victory at Auburn was no fluke. If you accept that, this is the beginning of a really important segment of the season.

The Volunteers still have a choice – up or down. If they can find the pieces and pick up some, recover emotionally, locate enough offensive linemen to line up and persuade third-teamers to avoid disaster in the secondary, Tennessee can start over.

This is a test for Jeremy Pruitt. How he handles this mess will greatly affect the finish. He finds no valid reason for a hangover. Watch closely. See if anybody quits.

Remaining opponents are likely to be favored but they, too, have problems. Don’t expect it but the Vols could bounce back and beat the Gamecocks.

Considering how little history Tennessee and South Carolina share, there have already been two landmark events in Columbia.

The first was in 1992. Oneida native Sparky Woods was Carolina coach. Woods was sort of famous. He intercepted more passes than anyone in Oneida High history and was in the school’s hall of fame. He had the distinction of being ignored by University of Tennessee recruiters. He played quarterback and defensive back at Carson-Newman.

Steve Tanneyhill, noted for stringy long hair long before long hair was standard, was the South Carolina quarterback in ’92.

Tennessee had been No. 4 in the country before a shocking loss to Arkansas and a seventh consecutive setback against Alabama. The Vols were on a downhill grade.

Those were troubled times in Big Orange County. John Majors and the UT administration were not exactly arm in arm. The coach was limited. He had hurried from the hospital and returned to work when he should have been recovering from heart surgery. His team did not respond precisely as he expected. October results were disappointing. Fans were agitated.

On a cold, haunting Halloween at Williams-Brice Stadium, the Vols were supposed to make bad matters worse for the Gamecocks. They were 2-5, losers at home by 38 to also bad Arkansas.

Alas, South Carolina gained a touchdown lead over Tennessee in the closing minutes. With hope running low, Mose Phillips countered with the play of his life. The fullback caught a swing pass from Heath Shuler and unraveled one of the great runs in Tennessee history.

“Phillips runs through, around, over and underneath defenders from South Carolina!” exclaimed John Ward.

That was close enough to what actually happened. The play covered 39 yards. The determined Mr. Mose rumbled along, eluding or bouncing off Gamecocks. They were scattered in disarray.

Phillips broke eight or 10 tackles, depending on who you believe and how you count hits and misses on Vol Network video.

That remarkable run would have been forever cherished but …

The Vols were still trailing, 24-23, with 1:28 to play. Majors had little choice but to go for two. A tie wouldn’t work. Florida was going to win the SEC East if Tennessee didn’t save the day.

The Vols were stopped short on the conversion attempt. The onside kick failed. South Carolina won. Before the next game, Majors was told he was finished.

Minus major drama, history was repeated in 2008. Phillip Fulmer’s last team lost at South Carolina.

The game had only a hint of intrigue. The coaching matchup included a guy with a sun visor who looked a lot like the Ol’ Ball Coach from Florida. It was the 14th meeting between Steve Spurrier and Fulmer, the first with neither team nationally ranked. There were no witty comments.

Tennessee’s confused offense, directed by Dave Clawson, opened with a different quarterback, Nick Stephens instead of Jonathan Crompton. It finally produced some points. Unfortunately, the output flashed onto the Gamecocks’ side of the scoreboard. A 78-yard interception return and a 40-yard fumble return were highlights. A fumbled punt led to a field goal. It was ugly.

The following Tuesday, Mike Hamilton inhaled deeply and told Fulmer his services were no longer needed. John Currie was available to say amen. You know how that turned out.

Those historic South Carolina games were 16 exciting years apart. This one will have a different ending. Pruitt’s job is not at risk.

Marvin West invites reader reactions. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com

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