COLUMBIA -- South Carolina might have lost this one in the past.
But that was before Alshon Jeffery, before Marcus Lattimore.
Tennessee rallied from two scores down to tie the game early in the fourth quarter, but USC's sophomore receiver and freshman running back helped the No. 17 Gamecocks get away for a 38-24 victory in front of 79,336 fans on a beautiful fall afternoon at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Jeffery had a 70-yard touchdown reception with 12:17 to play, breaking a 24-24 tie. After the defense got a stop, Lattimore carried the ball six times for 64 yards on a drive that ended with
a Stephen Garcia 1-yard touchdown run with 3:28 remaining.
Lattimore had 29 carries for a season-high 184 yards. He scored a second-quarter touchdown, his 11th rushing score of the season and 13th TD overall.
"You look at the fourth quarter, who took over?" Tennessee first-year coach Derek Dooley said, referring to Jeffery and Lattimore. "That's what great players do."
Earlier in the week, it might have seemed premature when Steve Spurrier called Jeffery and Lattimore two of the best players he's ever coached. But perhaps Spurrier was just calling it like he saw it, even if the players are underclassmen.
"With the game close, our guys found a way to pull it out," Spurrier said.
The Gamecocks (6-2, 4-2 SEC) still hold a one-game lead on Florida (5-3, 3-3) in the SEC East.
A Georgia win over Florida on Saturday would have helped since USC already beat the Bulldogs, but the Gators squeaked by with a field goal in overtime.
Florida plays at Vanderbilt next week, while Arkansas comes to Williams-Brice. The Gamecocks and Gators play in the Swamp in two weeks.
In other words, next week's Arkansas game is virtually meaningless - unless the Commodores somehow stun the Gators. The reality is this: If Spurrier and the Gamecocks want to play in the SEC title game for the first time, they're going to have to beat Florida in Gainesville to do it.
Dooley was at least sold on the Gamecocks. He repeatedly called South Carolina the "team that is going to the Georgia Dome."
That remains to be seen, of course. And South Carolina will not be able to get away with the mistakes that have plagued it the past three weeks in the games since it blistered Alabama.
In particular, the Gamecocks' pass defense has been beyond suspect. It was again Saturday against a Tennessee team that, coming in, was 10th in the SEC in total offense (320.9 yards a game) and 11th in scoring offense (21.4 points a game).
The Vols, though, managed 404 yards and 24 points against USC.
"We played really good today," Tennessee defensive tackle Malik Jackson said. "We scored over 10 points. That was good."
It's saying something about the Vols' trials when a 14-point loss in Columbia is worth patting yourself on the back for. Tennessee is 2-6 overall and still winless (0-5) in the SEC.
Typical as they have all season, the Vols showed life in the first half. And, typical of Tennessee, it emerged flat as can be for the second half.
USC sophomore defensive end Devin Taylor recovered his second of two fumbles to set up a Garcia 1-yard touchdown sneak to begin the third quarter. On the next Tennessee possession, Taylor stepped in front of a pass from freshman Tyler Bray and returned it 24 yards for a touchdown.
Snap of the fingers, 2 1/2 minutes into the second half, and it was 24-10 South Carolina.
The Gamecocks hadn't forced a turnover in the past two games, and Taylor claimed three by himself Saturday. Tennessee later muffed a punt, though that resulted in no points for the Gamecocks.
Bray helped the Vols rally, though, after the interception. Taking advantage of one-on-one matchups, particularly going to senior Denarius Moore, Tennessee got back into the game.
Moore had a 30-yard touchdown to cut the lead to seven with 3:09 to play in the third. A 62-yard completion to Moore -- on a play in which a blitzing Damario Jeffery just missed Bray -- set up a 17-yard strike to Gerald Jones on the following play. Moore finished with six catches for 228 yards.
"The deep balls are inexcusable," Spurrier said. "We gave up a ton of passing yards. We'll certainly keep working on that."
In a tie game, the Gamecocks turned to playmakers that, well, they simply haven't had in past seasons.
Garcia, hurried all afternoon, found Jeffery for about a 10-yard gain in the middle of the field. But Jeffery was able to scoot out to the left sideline, and then he showed off his "game speed" to get into the end zone for the game-winning score.
Jeffery had a 72-yard TD reception a week ago to seal the team's win at Vanderbilt.
"He doesn't look that fast," Spurrier said, "but no one manages to catch him from behind."
Playing with the lead, South Carolina started feeding the ball to Lattimore. He had runs of 40 (plus a 15-yard personal foul penalty) and 19 to help set up the final score.
"He looked like Secretariat running through us," Dooley said.
It's Lattimore's second 100-yard game of his freshman season - the first since he ran for 182 yards against Georgia on Sept. 11
"It's good to lean on them," Garcia said.