They aren't remembered as South Carolina's most demoralizing losses of the past three years, but they certainly rank among the more agonizing.
The Gamecocks have come so close to beating Tennessee they can feel it, smell it and taste it. Their three losses to the Volunteers have come by a combined 18 points, and each defeat brings back its own painful memories for South Carolina's players and coaches.
"It's frustrating, because we feel like we can play with those guys," said defensive end Jason Capers, who was with the Gamecocks for all three games. "The last few years, we've been so close."
The Gamecocks (3-1, 0-1 Southeastern Conference) get another crack at Tennessee tonight (7:45, ESPN) in Knoxville, Tenn., but keeping it close this time might be an accomplishment. The No. 8 Vols are flying high after last week's 24-10 triumph at Florida, and they seem bent on atoning for last year's 8-5 disappointment.
South Carolina, meanwhile, is still trying to discover its identity after a jolting 31-7 loss at Georgia two weeks ago.
"They're coming off an emotional victory, and now they're in the driver's seat" in the SEC East, Gamecocks coach Lou Holtz said. "They're the only team in our division without a loss, and they're coming home. It may be a better game if the (Tennessee) Titans played them. Play for the championship of Tennessee. That'd be interesting."
After South Carolina upset Tennessee 24-23 in 1992, there wasn't much interest or intrigue in this series. The Vols (3-0, 1-0 SEC) inflicted plenty of punishment for that upset the next seven seasons, winning by an average score of 39-12.
Holtz put and end to that dominance three years ago in Columbia, guiding the Gamecocks to what had all the appearances of a landmark victory. But the Vols drove for a touchdown in the waning moments and won, 17-14.
Two years ago, the Gamecocks were on the verge of winning for the first time ever in Knoxville, but the Vols again pulled together late and sent South Carolina home with a 17-10 defeat.
Last season, South Carolina scored a fourth-quarter touchdown to pull within 12-10. Then Tennessee quarterback Casey Clausen led his team on a 17-play, 90-yard drive to give the Vols all the cushion they would need in their 10th straight win over the Gamecocks.
South Carolina couldn't get the Vols while they were down. Now it will assume the daunting task of beating them while they're up.
"We came close the past couple of years," Capers said. "But we feel like this year, this is the toughest Tennessee team we've faced since I've been here."
Said Holtz: "Tennessee is used to winning, and our players aren't."
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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