Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley passing under pressure from South Alabama outside linebacker Maleki Harris (6) on Saturday, Sept. 28, at Neyland Stadium. (AP Photo/The Knoxville News Sentinel, Michael Patrick)
Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley had just turned 6 years old and only recently moved to South Carolina when the Vols went undefeated and won the national championship in 1998.
Worley’s home-state Gamecocks went 1-10 that year, including 0-8 in the SEC.
Why bring up ancient history as this year’s Vols (3-3, 0-2) prepare to play No. 11 South Carolina (5-1, 3-0) on Saturday at Neyland Stadium?
In the 15 years that have followed Tennessee’s championship, the programs have gone in opposite directions.
From 2000 to the present, South Carolina has 57 SEC wins. The Vols have 56.
Like Worley, South Carolina native Corey Miller admits he doesn’t remember a time when the Gamecocks were SEC basement-dwellers.
“I guess you only remember the good times — since the Ol’ Ball Coach got there,” said Miller, a defensive end from Wellford, S.C.
South Carolina’s success has accelerated under Steve Spurrier — the aforementioned “ball coach” — who took over for Lou Holtz in 2005.
Since Spurrier’s arrival, South Carolina has averaged five wins a year in the SEC, and many have come at the expense of the Vols.
In fact, the Vols and Carolina have rarely shared success. Only twice since 1998 have both teams have winning conference records in the same season. In 2000 and 2001, the height of Holtz’s tenure in Columbia, Carolina went 5-3 in the SEC. The Vols went 5-3 in 2000 and 7-1 in 2001.
That track record begs the question of whether there are enough wins to go around in the competitive and crowded SEC East for both teams to sustain success. Or will coach Butch Jones’ promised “rise to the top” require climbing over South Carolina?
Worley, whose parents are North Carolina graduates, grew up a Tarheels fan and wasn’t heavily recruited by South Carolina.
But he played against many of South Carolina’s current players, including star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
Miller has the most connections to the Gamecocks. Miller’s cousin, junior receiver Nick Jones, grew up with Miller and played football with him at Byrnes High School.
“It has a little bit more meaning because I have family on the team, but otherwise it’s another team on the schedule,” Miller said. “Maybe I’ll jaw with my cousin a little bit, but nothing further than that.”
In addition to Worley and Miller, injured tight end Justin Meredith, reserve offensive lineman Marques Pair and freshman defensive end Jaylen Miller also are from the Palmetto State.
Jones even loudly reminded players this week that Corey Miller was once a verbal commitment to South Carolina.
The Carolinas are an important part of Tennessee’s recruiting territory, and the strength of South Carolina and Clemson has made it much more difficult to steal top prospects out of the state. The Vols have no current verbal commitments from South Carolina and only one from North Carolina.
A win Saturday would be a good start for the ultimate goal: Flipping the balance of power in the SEC East back in Knoxville’s direction.
“It’s really the same formula every game,” Jones said. “In the SEC we play explosive offenses and defenses every week.”
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.