- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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For all his poor-mouthing, gross exaggerations and comical mispronunciations of names, Lou Holtz knows a little something about winning.
He's done it everywhere he's been, 248 times to be exact, at the college level.
So when he says the culture at South Carolina isn't conducive to winning, some of the most loyal fans in the country sit up straight and listen. And not only do they listen, but they yearn for the 67-year-old Holtz to change that culture forever.
He's in his sixth season of trying to do just that at a place where heartbreak has become as routine as reality TV in the prime time.
For those who need a quick refresher course in South Carolina football history, think Peanuts. Think Lucy. Think Charlie Brown.
Every year, ol' Chuck sincerely believed he was going to kick that football. But every year, Lucy yanked the ball right out from under him at the last second.
OK, maybe we were too young and naïve at the time to realize it was a re-run.
Nevertheless, get the picture?
The Gamecocks' fans sure do.
This is a program that seemingly has it all: First-class facilities. Incredible fan support. Quality high school football in the state and financial contributions that stack up with anybody in the SEC.
What the Gamecocks don't have, though, is much of a résumé when it comes to winning. They've won more than eight games only twice in school history, and Holtz was at the helm for one of those seasons in 2001 when South Carolina defeated Ohio State in the Outback Bowl.
Even with Holtz, who's elevated South Carolina to a level of respectability in the SEC, it's been a few steps forward and a few steps backward.
But here they are again, on the cusp of something special. Tennessee comes to Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday in a game that has definite Eastern Division championship implications.
"These are the types of games against the Tennessees, Georgias, Floridas (that) change the culture," said South Carolina senior offensive guard Jonathan Alston. "We play games close, and we just can't get over it. The small things they teach us about not giving up and capitalizing on different things will help us in these situations."
The Vols (6-1, 4-1) control their own destiny in the East if they can win out over South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
But should the Gamecocks (5-2, 3-2) break their 11-game losing streak against Tennessee, they would vault to the forefront of the race.
In fact, South Carolina would own the tiebreaker in the East if the Gamecocks win out (They also have Arkansas at home and Florida on the road) and Georgia loses to Florida on Saturday.
Needless to say, the Gamecocks have been down this road before. They were 5-3 heading into the final stretch a year ago and finished 5-7. They were 5-2 in 2002 and also wound up 5-7.
The frustrations against Tennessee have really taken their toll. Losing to the Vols every year has been difficult enough. But it's the way the Gamecocks have lost that's epitomized their history of getting to the brink -- and then tumbling back down.
If there were such a thing as almost-wins, the Gamecocks would still be building trophy cases to store their hardware.
Holtz knows the only way to change that image is to go out and finally beat Tennessee, which has won the last four games in this series by a total of 21 points.
"I hope we have great respect for Tennessee, which we do, but we're not afraid of them," Holtz said. "We don't stand in awe. Bring it on. Bring your 'A' game, because they're going to bring it anyway. It isn't like they're going to leave the sucker at home."
The difference between South Carolina and Tennessee on the field has been minuscule the last four years.
Holtz said he can "almost go play by play" what happened to the Gamecocks, who failed to get it done each time in the fourth quarter.
A year ago, Tennessee's James Banks caught a touchdown pass in overtime to win it for the Vols 23-20 after the Gamecocks controlled much of the game.
In 2002, the Vols put together a 17-play, 90-yard scoring drive -- capped by Casey Clausen's 5-yard touchdown run on fourth down -- to escape 18-10 in Columbia.
The 2001 game saw Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth slam South Carolina running back Andrew Pinnock down for no gain at the goal line, forcing the Gamecocks to kick a game-tying field goal. The Vols drove for the winning touchdown, highlighted by Clausen's 32-yard pass to Tony Brown over the middle on a third-and-21 play.
The 2000 affair also featured a back-breaking, third-and-long completion by the Vols, who rallied to win 17-14. Travis Henry scored on a 1-yard touchdown with 26 seconds remaining. In the decisive drive, Clausen connected with Donte Stallworth for 23 yards on a third-and-14 play.
"We just haven't been able to get over that hump with Tennessee," said South Carolina freshman safety Ko Simpson. "It's gone right down to the wire every time. We just haven't been able to pull it out. It's time we pull it out."
The law of averages are on South Carolina's side. But they were with Charlie Brown every year, too.
"Tennessee knows they can win," Holtz said. "They're used to winning. They expect to win. They expect us to self-destruct. On a positive note, our players know they can play with them.
"As good as they are, we belong there."
Now, if only the Gamecocks can keep Lucy from sneaking into Williams-Brice Stadium this weekend.
Chris Low covers the SEC for The Nashville Tennessean.
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