KNOXVILLE — Were you to poll the Big Orange Nation about the biggest games on the University of Tennessee football schedule each year, odds are most of their responses would center on Alabama and Florida, with Georgia coming in a somewhat distant third.
Even Kentucky and Vanderbilt might get a few mentions, if only because they're usually wins won at a critical time for bowl bids, and because the Volunteers have faced the Wildcats a total of 113 times and Vanderbilt 111 times.
But when it comes to an opponent having an immediate impact on the UT program, it would be hard to top the role that South Carolina — which welcomes the Vols to Columbia on Saturday night — has played since joining the Southeastern Conference in time for the 1992 season.
Or don't you remember what happened that year following the Vols' 24-23 road loss to the Gamecocks?
It was in the week following that defeat that Johnny Majors was asked to resign in order to promote then-assistant Phillip Fulmer to the top spot. The Vols would win their final three regular-season games with Majors officially still at the helm, but he declined to coach the Hall of Fame Bowl in Tampa against Boston College.
Fulmer — who already had been credited with wins against Southwestern Louisiana, Florida and Georgia to open that season while Majors recovered from heart surgery — directed the Vols to a 38-23 bowl win over the Eagles, then ran the program for the next 16 seasons. Majors was credited with going 5-3 during the last of his 16 seasons atop Rocky Top.
But just to prove that fate sometimes has an odd sense of humor, Fulmer learned that he was being fired in 2008 within 36 hours of losing 27-6 at South Carolina.
However, the Gamecocks' imprint on UT football hardly ended 10 years ago.
Though Fulmer's replacement, Lane Kiffin, arguably had the biggest win of his single season in Knoxville against Georgia (45-19), the Vols' 27-24 victory over South Carolina at Neyland Stadium on Halloween night — UT wearing black jerseys for the first time since 1921 — may have been the most memorable and enjoyable moment for the fans.
Then there is the momentum the Gamecocks provided former UT coach Butch Jones during his second season coaching the Vols and the momentum that South Carolina took away from him two years later inside that same Williams-Brice Stadium.
Let's begin with the night of Nov. 1, 2014, a dusting of snow having fallen for much of the day throughout the South. Thanks to some stunning heroics from sophomore quarterback Josh Dobbs, the Vols came from a two-touchdown hole on the road to shock Steve Spurrier's team 45-42 in overtime.
A somewhat shaky 3-5 entering that game, UT would finish 6-6 and head to its first bowl game since 2010, ultimately routing Iowa 45-28 in the TaxSlayer Bowl. It was the start of something of a belated honeymoon for Jones, who would ride that unexpected success to a 9-4 record the following year that included a victory over Georgia and a six-game winning streak at the close of the season following a 45-6 dismantling of Northwestern in the Outback Bowl.
Alas, another date with South Carolina in Columbia would take the Vols in a far different direction in 2016.
When UT played in Columbia on the night of Oct. 29, it had just lost two straight to Texas A&M and Alabama after a 5-0 start. But in a topsy-turvy SEC East, the Vols still likely controlled their own destiny regarding a spot in the conference title game if they could win out against South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt, which didn't seem all that difficult.
Instead, led by true freshman quarterback Jake Bentley, who should have been a senior in high school that year, the Gamecocks prevailed 24-21, which would doom Tennessee to a Music City Bowl game against Nebraska after dropping the regular-season finale to Vanderbilt.
Whatever good will Jones had gained inside Williams-Brice Stadium in 2014 was lost, and then some, in 2016.
Two years later, Jones is out, Jeremy Pruitt is in and another trip to South Carolina could well determine whether Pruitt can return the Vols to a bowl game in his first year at the Big Orange helm.
This isn't to say UT can't lose to the Gamecocks and still go bowling. It can. But a loss means the Vols could lose only one more the rest of the way without being home for the holidays.
Said Pruitt on Monday: "It's a hard place to win, in Columbia, especially at night. It's a tremendous challenge for our team moving forward."
It's a challenge that often has gotten the best of the Big Orange when visiting Williams-Brice. But if Saturday night winds up mirroring 2014 far more than 1992, 2008 or 2016, Pruitt may well be on his way to far brighter days in Volsville. And if not, neither the fans nor the administration is likely to turn on him as they once did Majors, Fulmer and Jones. At least not in year one.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org