Let's focus on the positive here first: Butch Jones now has the signature win that Derek Dooley never had. He might have the kind of win Lane Kiffin never had. He almost certainly has shown that the Volunteers are once again a team you have to worry about, if not yet a force to be reckoned with in the chaotic SEC East.
Tennessee's defeat of South Carolina on Saturday marked the first defeat of a ranked opponent since they beat South Carolina, also at home, in 2009. The Gamecocks ended that year unranked, something that could very well happen this year but might not -- and if it doesn't happen, it would mark the first Tennessee victory over a team ranked at the end of the season since the Outback Bowl against Wisconsin following the 2007 season.
And Saturday's victory marks its first win against a Top 15 team since beating South Carolina -- again -- in Knoxville -- again -- in 2007. Knoxville has become the new Starkville for Steve Spurrier, the place where dreams of breakthrough season go to die. But if Butch Jones' rebuilding plan goes as well as it appears to be going now, Spurrier will not be the only one who has an unpleasant experience facing the Vols at home.
But Spurrier's unpleasant experience was almost exclusively of his own making. The play-calling all day was bizarre. After South Carolina took the lead in the third quarter, having seemed to put away the upset threat from the Vols, he continued to call passes for seemingly no reason except that Spurrier likes to throw the ball. Mike Davis would end up with 21 runs on the day for 137 yards and a touchdown; four of his carries came after South Carolina took the lead.
That reached its worst extreme when South Carolina got the ball back on its own 12 leading by one with 5:44 left in the game. Spurrier called three consecutive passes; on the second, Connor Shaw was sacked and sustained what looked like it could be a troubling knee injury. The Gamecocks forced a three-and-out, then began what can only be described as the dumbest drive of the day. Spurrier called two runs by Davis, seeming to have regained his senses temporarily. Then, on 3rd-and-8, backup quarterback Dylan Thompson took off on what appeared to be a designed run, with the predictable result that he came up short.
Spurrier wasn't done. He kept the offense on the field and looked ready to go for it on fourth down, then called timeout. Then, Spurrier sent the offense back out on the field and looked read to go for it on fourth down again -- then called time out. When he finally punted it, the Vols took over with the ball on their own 35 with 2:48 left in the game and an opponent that could only stop the clock once. A long pass and a few runs set up the game-winning FG as time expired.
That should take away nothing from Tennessee's win. Butch Jones outcoached Steve Spurrier, and the Vols capitalized on the mistakes they needed to in order to win. Given the way that the game began, South Carolina was lucky to be in this game to begin with. Steve Spurrier lost the game, but Tennessee won it. And when it comes to high-caliber opponents, that's the first time the Volunteers have been able to say that in a very long time.