Tennessee-South Carolina Preview
Steve Spurrier has accepted South Carolina won't win a Southeastern Conference title this year. He's now focused on making sure the Gamecocks' two-game slide doesn't grow this week against Tennessee.
It's a huge comedown from a couple of weeks ago when anything was possible for undefeated South Carolina, 6-0 and ranked No. 3 after a 35-7 dismantling of Georgia.
But the now-No. 17 Gamecocks (4-2 SEC) wilted in top-10 showdown losses at LSU, 23-21, and at Florida, 44-11.
"Yeah, I guess it was a tough stretch," Spurrier said Tuesday. "But if we were strong enough and tough enough and mentally tough enough, we could have handled it."
Instead, Spurrier got his players chasing other goals like a perfect record at home this season and a second-straight 11-win season, both that can be enhanced Saturday when the Gamecocks take on struggling Tennessee (3-4, 0-4).
"We're trying to reinforce our guys with the positives, and hey, we were a pretty good team two and a half weeks ago, let's get back to being a pretty good team," Spurrier said.
For South Carolina's offense, that starts with tailback Marcus Lattimore, who wasn't much of a factor in the defeats. He had 13 carries for 35 yards at Death Valley and three carries for 13 yards at The Swamp.
Lattimore bruised a hip in the LSU loss, didn't practice much in the week leading up to Florida, then was only used sparingly against the Gators, Spurrier said, once the game got out of South Carolina's control in the first half.
Lattimore's healthy and ready to go, Spurrier said, and will see plenty of action against a Vols' defense that's allowed 246 yards on the ground to its four previous SEC opponents.
Spurrier had yanked starting quarterback Connor Shaw at halftime against Florida in favor of Dylan Thompson. But the head ball coach, famously tough on the guys charged with running his attack, said Shaw would go the whole way against Tennessee no matter what takes place.
"I told him the other day, `You are not coming out unless you get hurt,'" Spurrier said. "If he skunks it up through the first half, he's going to skunk it up the whole second half. This is his game."
South Carolina's defense has had its breakdowns, too, during the losing streak. The group gave up 258 yards rushing to LSU, which was more than double its previous high of 120 rushing yards allowed to Kentucky.
The Gamecocks held Florida to 183 yards total last week, but three fumbles - one by Shaw and two on special teams - got the third-ranked Gators rolling early.
Gamecocks center T.J. Johnson said the players had a good, strong practice session Monday night and was confident there'd be no hangover from the two consecutive losses, something South Carolina hasn't endured in regular-season play since losing three in row in 2009.
There's also no finger-pointing or placing blame between offense and defense, Johnson said.
"None of us can be calling out anyone's name since none of us played well," he said.
Tennessee has had its own gauntlet to deal with, losing its past three to ranked SEC opponents in Georgia, Mississippi State and last week against No. 1 Alabama.
"That's life in the SEC. Everybody goes through some stretches," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. "I think the toughest thing is your energy and your spirit's a little bit better when you can get a `W' on them and we haven't been able to do that yet."
Spurrier was as angry as he'd been all season after his team's showing at The Swamp, where he won six SEC crowns and the 1996 national championship as Gators coach. He vowed to make changes and find guys who wanted to give maximum effort.
A couple of days later, Spurrier said it was time to forget the SEC championship talk and lock on to what the Gamecocks still could accomplish.
"I was obviously a little irritated, but I'm over that," he said. "When you get mad, you got to get over it, you got to move on, and we're looking forward to the ballgame this week."
AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tenn., contributed to this report.