In one way, the game Saturday between theand the was more of the same from both teams. Tennessee blew a lead in the second half after looking in control in the first half. South Carolina's beleaguered defense looked incapable of stopping anything for long stretches of the game, and third down for almost all of it. But the Vols' narrow, 27-24 win in Knoxville also felt like a departure from the early-season narrative for both of these teams.
Primarily, because Tennessee won on the kind of unlikely and heartbreaking play that has killed the Volunteers all year. South Carolina tight end Jerell Adams was headed toward the end zone and inside the Tennessee 20-yard line, setting up what could have been either a game-tying field goal or a game-winning touchdown for the Gamecocks with less than a minute left. But Malik Foreman punched the ball out of Adams' grasp, Tennessee recovered, and the game was over.
In some respects, Tennessee had outplayed South Carolina for most of the game. The Volunteers had a narrow edge on total yardage, and the game was only really close because Tennessee turned the ball over three times before South Carolina's critical mistake. The defense didn't always look sharp against the uneven South Carolina offense, but Joshua Dobbs had a decent game throwing the ball (20-of-34 for 255 yards, two touchdowns and an interception) and the Tennessee running game was just good enough to keep the game going.
And, facing a South Carolina team that seems constitutionally incapable of defending on third down, the Volunteers were ruthless in key situations. Tennessee converted half of its third-down attempts -- going 9-for-18 -- and also made good on its one fourth-down attempt. Significantly, the team didn't fold when South Carolina's comeback brought up uncomfortable echoes of the past; twice, the Gamecocks tied the game after having been down 17-0 early, and twice, Tennessee took the lead again.
The Gamecocks, meanwhile, continued their improvement under interim coach Shawn Elliott, and particularly their improvement in the second half. Perry Orth ended up 20-of-39 passing for 233 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions -- a solid performance, especially for a member of South Carolina's maligned quarterback group. The running game sputtered at times, but it also came through enough in spots, especially when the play-calling gave it a chance. Improvement in the ninth game of a season that seems destined to end without a bowl game and with a head-coaching search isn't that encouraging, but it's something for one of the most badly beaten fan bases in the SEC over the last two months.
That's where both of these teams stand right now: Having patched up some of the problems that put their goals for the year out of reach, but having done so too late to recover. Tennessee is one win away from postseason eligibility, and it's almost a lock that they'll get that victory and make a bowl -- probably a decent one. But that's not where Volunteer fans really hope to be. And South Carolina is one loss away from missing the postseason, and it's almost a lock that they will take that loss and have nothing to look forward too in December or January other than the naming of a new head coach.
So the latest installment in one of the closest rivalries in the SEC since the turn of the century was a thrilling game and a change in the narrative for both teams. But unfortunately for both, the story of their respective seasons was written weeks ago.