COLUMBIA -- South Carolina now knows one game will determine whether it will play in the SEC title game for the first time.
The odd part: It's next week -- and the 18th-ranked Gamecocks might be facing a better team this week.
No. 17 Arkansas is first up, with most likely nothing on the line in terms of the SEC's Eastern Division. A trip to Florida is after that, with the winner likely going to Atlanta to face the West champ.
"In all odds, the game against the
Gators down there is going to decide the Eastern Division," said USC coach Steve Spurrier, who was, of course, previously at Florida. "We don't need to worry about that game until the following week. Arkansas is the game this week."
There's one scenario in which South Carolina (6-2, 4-2 SEC) could win the division this week, but it requires Vanderbilt (2-6, 1-4) upsetting Florida (5-3, 3-3) in addition to a USC win.
"I don't think they're going to lose to Vanderbilt," Spurrier said. "I guess stranger things have happened, though."
Perhaps. No one really thought Tennessee would be winless (0-5) in the SEC heading into November.
South Carolina continued the Volunteers' spiral, even if it wasn't the most consistent performance of the season.
Passing defense continues to plague the Gamecocks, and looking for answers will not get any easier without senior cornerback Chris Culliver. Culliver is likely out for the season, Spurrier said, after suffering some sort of shoulder injury Saturday. Culliver has had two different surgeries on his left shoulder, including one this past offseason.
Spurrier didn't elaborate on the nature of the injury, other than to say it is "serious."
Culliver struggled at times this season, moving from safety to cornerback. But he had also covered well at times.
Junior C.C. Whitlock will start in Culliver's place. Spurrier mentioned former walk-on Brandan Davis and current walk-on Marty Markett as players who might move into the rotation.
Also, free safeties Akeem Auguste and D.J. Swearinger both played corner last season and could be part of a rotation between the two positions.
Regardless, the Gamecocks need more out of their secondary. Tennessee's Tyler Bray and Matt Simms, despite playing poorly most of the season, combined for 312 yards and three touchdowns.
USC has allowed 300-plus passing yards in three of the past four games. It is 12th -- last -- in the SEC, giving up 259.9 passing yards a game.
Those aren't exactly stats you want to hear or see heading into a game against Arkansas, first in the league with 360.2 passing yards a game. The Razorbacks are nearly 100 yards better than anyone in the SEC in that category, and they rank second nationally.
"We've got to get our guys playing their assignments exactly right and not leaving their area if we're going to have any chance at all of beating Arkansas," Spurrier said. "They're the best passing team in the conference, by far. They're probably going to be licking their chops when they see the tape of our last several games. We've got to do some improvement, or different stuff, or whatever we need to do."
Giant quarterback Ryan Mallett makes Arkansas' offense go. The Michigan transfer passed up the NFL to return for his junior season.
Pressure is important, and USC (30 sacks) has been good in that area. But, of course, it will still have to cover during the course of the game.
"He may have a field day if we don't improve and get some pressure on him this week," Spurrier said.
Saturday was another day of USC's defensive coaches scratching their heads as to what's going on.
"In every case, it's just somebody not in position, not making a play," defensive head coach Ellis Johnson said. "I don't think we can go back and draw up anything different, find any magic secrets."
After the second-half breakdown at Kentucky, the Gamecocks marginally altered personnel and tweaked coverages.
Going with more man didn't purely provide a solution Saturday, with Tennessee receivers -- mostly Denarius Moore -- getting behind USC's defensive backs. Moore's 228 yards are the most for any FBS receiver this season.
Offensive execution got a bit bogged down after USC, thanks to turnovers, bolted to a 24-10 third-quarter lead against the Vols. The play-calling chain of command, led by quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus, looked clunky at times.
Terrific plays by Alshon Jeffery (70-yard touchdown) and Marcus Lattimore (40-yard run, among others in a 184-yard day) sort of saved the day for the Gamecocks.
Spurrier didn't seem overly sold with the "community system" when he talked about it Sunday.
"I don't know if we're doing it the best way," he said. "I mean, I should have to make the calls when the game's on the line. So, I jump in there. It's not fair to the other (coaches)."
"I've been doing most of it, so I still call a good portion. But not all of it. But, again, we all sort of pitch in. I think the play-calling's been about what we wanted, here and there."