Like all SEC schools, Tennessee is obligated to play its entire football schedule regardless of the shape the roster is in. With the exception of an ugly game in Baton Rouge that was far closer than anyone expected, the 2010 version of the Volunteers have been beaten convincingly in their other conference games and the season opener against now number one Oregon.
However, while winning is usually the most important thing for any team to do, I would argue it's second on UT's current list. At the top? Recruiting.
Sure, plenty of fans would argue that winning is 1a to recruiting's 1b at all schools every year. That may be true most seasons, but in Knoxville - right now - it's not. The Vols need players. Good ones, and lots of them. They'll get them too, much to the chagrin of their Eastern division rivals and Alabama. That said, are we at a point in SEC history where there's a real changing of the guard, or will the normalcy of the "Big Six" and the "Next Six" return in a year or two?
This Saturday's game in Columbia between the Gamecocks and Vols can begin to answer that question.
Since his arrival at Carolina, Steve Spurrier is just 2-3 against Tennessee. Last year saw the Gamecocks take a talented team to Neyland Stadium. The Vols thumped USC, like they'd done to Georgia a few weeks earlier. In a year when movement was supposed to start in the East, Kiffin and UT served notice that they wouldn't be moving down anytime soon.
Kiffin's departure, however, erased a lot of good feelings in Vol country, and most notably soured an entire recruiting class on playing for UT. Some recruits stayed on board, but many looked elsewhere, unsure of who or what was next. That left the Vols in worse shape than before AD Mike Hamilton decided Phil Fulmer was no longer capable of running the program.
Enter South Carolina. At SEC Media Days the Gamecocks were picked ahead of Tennessee for the second consecutive year. I know, it's just a July prediction, but it is an indicator of how schools are seen across the conference. As we speak, there are very few who feel Tennessee football is in better shape than South Carolina football. Winning Saturday will further validate Carolina's current status for sure, but it will not be the final say as these two programs struggle for the right to back in the Top 3 in the East.
Tennessee has a long, proud and very successful football tradition. Now that the head coach is once again a principled man with deep ties to the South, order in Knoxville is slowly being restored. The intangibles - money, facilities and history - are all solidly in place at UT.
South Carolina's football history is long too, but not nearly as successful as the Vols'. The Gamecocks recent recruiting fortunes have turned the team into a legitimate contender in the SEC East. The reason is simple: seizing the moment.
Leadership at Carolina is solid. The plan has been laid out and the feeling of positive expectations is very high. Bottom line - the future here is bright, those involved want to be champions and the resources and opportunities to accomplish those things in Columbia are as good as most other schools across the SEC. That has not always been the case at USC. New recruits can be shown that the Gamecocks are ready for the next level right now.
So this weekend Tennessee brings their road show to Columbia. They were beaten badly last week and know there are few chances left to redeem the season. What are they playing for? Their coach? Themselves? The future? Any reason is a good one, and I suspect the Volunteers will want to prove they still belong in the conversation of best teams in the Southeastern Conference. The Gamecocks need to be prepared for a good team, even one that comes in as 17 point underdog.
That said, it all boils down to one very simple concept. Winning. There is indeed some uncertainty at a few of the schools the Gamecocks compete against every year. Those doors will close soon enough. The single best thing to do to impress upon recruits how serious you are is to show them how good you are in head-to-head match-ups. That's easy enough. Players, get on the field and give it your all. Fans, get in the stands and give it your all.
One more note: a win Saturday and the Gamecocks know they'll be playing for the division title. That's big motivation if you ask me.
Yes Tennessee is down. Yes Carolina is up. Will it stay that exact way? I doubt it, but that doesn't mean Carolina has to go to the back of the line again.