South Carolina Tennessee Football

South Carolina coach Will Muschamp leaves the field Saturday after the Gamecocks' 41-21 loss to Tennessee. USC needs to win three of its final four games to become eligible for a bowl game. Wade Payne/AP

COLUMBIA — They had been doused with water, subjected to an overnight freeze and kicked out of the stone pit.

The hot coals under Will Muschamp’s seat weren’t even coals anymore after a 20-17 triumph over No. 3 Georgia two weeks ago. They were dirt, scattered among the fallen autumn leaves.

Yet Tennessee returning a punt for a touchdown in Saturday’s 41-21 debacle brushed a leaf over a stray briquette. A wisp of smoke rose as Jauan Jennings caught another wide-open pass. By the time Ryan Hilinski picked himself off the ground after another hurried incompletion, there was another simmering circle.

It’s barely enough to keep one’s hands warm right now. But if the Gamecocks lose to Vanderbilt on Saturday, it might be time to break out the Stop, Drop and Roll video.

USC center Donell Stanley said that Tennessee was more excited than USC to play. Running back Tavien Feaster said USC wasn’t desperate to make the plays. Those guys have a combined 11 seasons’ worth of college football experience so when they’re saying it, it carries some weight.

But despite those comments and the loss, the Gamecocks aren’t bailing. The players still believe they can get the season back on track and get to a bowl game.

“I don’t think anybody wasn’t trying to make a play. We gave great effort in the game,” Muschamp said. “As far as guys wanting to make the plays, it’s different than making the plays, if that’s what we’re talking about. They made more than we did.”

The Gamecocks can’t afford to let that happen too many more times if they want to still be playing in December. USC is stuck on three wins and has to win three more to achieve bowl eligibility.

The Gamecocks host Vanderbilt, which has just two wins this season, on Saturday. But Tennessee had only won two games before last week. And two weeks ago, Vanderbilt upset then-No. 22 Missouri.

After the Vandy game, USC plays No. 20 Appalachian State at home, plays at Texas A&M and then faces No. 4 Clemson in Williams-Brice Stadium.

A 6-6 record and a bowl game was a completely satisfactory result before the year, considering the strength of the schedule. Nobody would be overjoyed with a 6-6 record, but it probably would be enough to turn down the heat on USC's head coach.

If the Gamecocks don't get to 6-6, how many games they finish under .500 could determine how many more matches are struck. 

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.

From Rock Hill, S.C., David Cloninger covers Gamecock sports. He will not rest until he owns every great film and song ever recorded.