COLUMBIA -- The way South Carolina thoroughly clocked Southern Miss surprised even the Ball Coach.

"I think maybe we played better than we thought we would," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said of the 41-13 victory Thursday that was never, ever close.

But here's the thing: A couple of hours west, Georgia played similarly well in its opener Saturday against Louisiana-Lafayette. The Bulldogs cruised to a 55-7 victory.

The stage is set for a big early-season game in the SEC race. Kickoff is at noon Saturday (TV: ESPN2).

"It's early. We don't know what's going to happen down the road," Spurrier said. "Obviously both teams desperately want to win it. It puts one of the two schools in pretty much better position than the other."

The Bulldogs successfully broke in redshirt freshman quarterback Aaron Murray, even without star receiver A.J. Green.

Green, the Summerville product, sat out while waiting for a ruling from the NCAA about the possibility he took improper benefits earlier this week.

USC tight end Weslye Saunders, under the guise of violating team rules, continues to sit for the same reason.

Additionally, the Gamecocks were without left tackle Jarriel King and cornerback Chris Culliver on Thursday, as the NCAA continues to sift through their matters.

King, a North Charleston native, is still in the middle of an investigation into his prior living arrangements at The Whitney Hotel. Meanwhile, the NCAA is looking into an insurance policy that Culliver took out to protect his draft status.

There's no way to know whether any of those players will be available Saturday.

"Some days they wait until the last day to tell you whether they're playing or not," Spurrier said. "They tell us who plays and we go at it. That's how you have to operate."

South Carolina had 10 players cleared a little more than an hour before kickoff Thursday. Spurrier did say he expects those players, mostly defensive starters, to be out of danger concerning the NCAA.

"I think that those guys are OK," Spurrier said. "I'm not 100 percent sure."

Safety Akeem Auguste, one of the players who was in limbo Thursday, said he thought the group was in the clear, as well.

Spurrier praised cornerback C.C. Whitlock, who started Thursday in place of Culliver.

D.J. Swearinger, who can play every spot in the secondary, is also important, if Culliver can't go.

Swearinger had to leave Thursday's game at halftime after suffering a concussion, but Spurrier called it "slight" and expects Swearinger to return to practice by the middle of the week.

Spurrier said he doesn't expect the Gamecocks to have weak-side linebacker Shaq Wilson (hamstring) this week. Tony Straughter and Quin Smith filled in for Wilson last week. Straughter had a fumble recovery and a long return, to set up USC's final touchdown.

Spur Antonio Allen (hamstring), who missed Thursday's game, should return this week. Damario Jeffery had to play the bulk of the snaps in Allen's absence. The plan is to split Allen and Jeffery at the linebacker-safety hybrid position.

Of note, Spurrier was particularly complimentary Sunday of quarterback Stephen Garcia.

Garcia threw for 193 yards and no touchdowns, but you have to dig deeper to get to the heart of his positive evening.

He rushed for a pair of scores and, in an offseason focal point, wasn't sacked.

"He threw the ball much better than he ever has, I think," Spurrier said. "Overall, he stayed in there and threw the ball. He was able to get the ball out of his hands."

The offense showed moments of explosiveness and cohesion that it hadn't flashed in recent memory.

Sophomore Alshon Jeffery picked up from the 2009 season, becoming a physical mismatch all over the field. He had 106 of Garcia's 193 yards through the air.

Freshman Ace Sanders' 52-yard reverse was a high note. That run set up one of fellow freshman Marcus Lattimore's two second-quarter scores. Sanders also caught a pair of passes, including an over-the-shoulder grab on Garcia's best throw of the night. Garcia later charged in for his second rushing score.

Reach Travis Haney at thaney@postandcourier.com, check out the Gamecocks blog at postandcourier.com/blogs/gamecocks and follow him on Twitter (@gamecocksblog).