KNOXVILLE — When Tennessee returns to Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday, it probably won't take long for the memories to begin flowing for many players.
Two years ago at South Carolina the Volunteers completed an incredible rally from 14 points down in the final two minutes and won 45-42 in overtime.
By no means was it the biggest win in Tennessee's history or even close to it — the Vols and Gamecocks both finished 7-6 in 2014 — but in hindsight it's hard to deny the impact it had on the program's trajectory.
"It definitely led us down the right track," quarterback Josh Dobbs, the orchestrator of the comeback, recalled Tuesday.
"I remember coming into that season our goal was to make it to a bowl game and get Tennessee back to a bowl game and then continue growing the program from there. Obviously we had six regular-season wins that year, and that was definitely an important one to get there to accomplish that goal.
"It definitely was a steppingstone in the right direction, and we've continued to grow since then."
Instead of bowl eligibility, Tennessee now needs a win against South Carolina to extend its chase of an SEC East Division title, a tangible sign of the program's progress since that frigid November night in Columbia.
One of the biggest what-if scenarios of Butch Jones's tenure as Tennessee's head coach is where the Vols would be now had they not pulled off the remarkable rally. It was the difference in getting to a bowl game and finishing with a winning record in his second season and gave Tennessee, which later landed a top-five recruiting class, momentum it then lacked.
It also essentially launched Dobbs' career. In the first start of his sophomore season after taking over for the injured Justin Worley, Dobbs passed for 301 yards, ran for 166 and totaled five touchdowns. Tennessee's offense has operated under his command since, and the Vols are 18-7 during that span.
"It was definitely something I think about," he said, "just being your first win that year and how it propelled us to get to a bowl game and finish out that season strong. I guess I haven't really looked back at it much. I'm just constantly focusing on the next thing, the next task, but it definitely was a good win for us."
Though Tennessee is a two-touchdown favorite against the 3-4 Gamecocks, the Vols aren't expecting their next task to be a walk in the park. The past four games between Tennessee and South Carolina were decided by a total of 11 points. The 2013 and 2014 games were decided on the final play. The other two were decided in the final minute.
"We look at this kind of like a rivalry game," defensive tackle Kendal Vickers said. "Rivalry games are supposed to be close, but we've just got to go in with the mindset of we've got to work this week and go out there and execute. It's just like Florida and Georgia. Those (are) close games, it seems like, every year.
"It comes down to the wire, so the team that executes the best at the end of the game will win."
As decided underdogs in 2013, the Vols upset the 11th-ranked Gamecocks on Michael Palardy's short field goal at the horn, and the loss kept South Carolina, which finished 11-2 that year, out of the SEC championship game.
Last season South Carolina, playing for an interim coach after Steve Spurrier's midseason exit, was driving to win the game or at least force overtime in the final minute when Malik Foreman's forced fumble saved a Tennessee win.
Those games will have no impact on Saturday night's contest, but the Vols know, based on recent history with the Gamecocks and the nature of SEC road games, to expect a tight game.
"No question. With the talent they have, the margin of victory is probably going to be small," safety Todd Kelly Jr. said. "It's at their stadium, night game, sold out — they're trying to get bowl-eligible. We know it's going to be a tremendous game. We know they're going to bring their A-game. Every team we've played this year has brought their A-game to us.
"We have to be prepared and ready to go."
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