COLUMBIA — Hard to tell if No. 13 South Carolina made strides Saturday night after last week’s soul-wrenching loss at Georgia.
The Gamecocks weren’t challenged enough in the first half against Vanderbilt.
They were sloppy enough in the second half to embarrass fans who bolted Williams-Brice Stadium early.
They won, 35-25. But this was just a typical SEC East bottom-division opponent, meaning the Sept. 28 game at Central Florida projects as a much tougher test.
Good thing the Gamecocks have two weeks to prepare for the suddenly noble Knights, a 34-31 winner Saturday at Penn State.
“I wouldn’t mind maybe playing Austin Peay this week,” head coach Steve Spurrier said after the Gamecocks improved to 2-1. “You laugh about that, but sometimes when you play a team like that everybody gets to play and everybody feels pretty good and you sort of regroup. And it’s not a knock-down, drag-out game. We’ve had three in a row now.”
Spurrier said the Gamecocks are not “sitting around moping.”
“Sometimes crap happens and you lose games like that,” he said.
Vanderbilt did its best early to help the Gamecocks feel better about themselves. By the time South Carolina built a 35-10 lead in the third quarter, Vanderbilt’s best plays were:
A punt that bounced down to the Gamecocks’ 10-yard line.
A long interception return that set up a 1-yard scoring drive.
A 54-yard field goal.
“We did a lot of good things,” Spurrier said. “We don’t need to be mad.”
But some of the Georgia problems crept back into the game, right along with the Commodores.
There were two more illegal substitution penalties.
Shon Carson bobbled one kickoff and fumbled away another.
South Carolina defensive backs Brison Williams and Victor Hampton appeared to snap at each other just after Vanderbilt scored on a fourth-quarter screen pass.
But Vanderbilt (1-2) simply isn’t good enough to pull off this kind of upset.
Get used to such mismatches within the strange, stratified Southeastern Conference. The trip to Orlando might be the Gamecocks’ biggest hurdle until — gulp — a Nov. 16 home game against Florida.
At the top of the SEC East, there’s Georgia, South Carolina and Florida.
But if Vanderbilt is the fourth-best team in the division — the Commodores were picked ahead of Tennessee, Missouri and Kentucky at SEC Media Days — the league lacks depth as rarely before.
To see the disparity in a preseason poll is one thing, on the field quite another.
Still, regardless of the opponent, the Gamecocks tackled a little better than last week, most of the play calls came in on time on defense and Jadeveon Clowney forced a fumble and had a sack.
Two quarterbacks (Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson) had good nights, 10 different guys caught passes (including Thompson on his own throw) and Vanderbilt was held to 268 yards of offense.
“Any time you win, it’s encouraging,” defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said.
Ward pointed to Vanderbilt’s 2-for-12 conversion rate on third down as the tell-tale statistic.
At times it was almost Austin Peay. But third-year head coach James Franklin has Vanderbilt fans believing. The Commodores went 9-4 in 2012 to tie the school record for wins dating back to World War I. Vanderbilt showed up on George Rogers Boulevard looking for its fourth straight SEC road victory (Missouri, Kentucky and Ole Miss last year).
Maybe a little anxiety sparked by a low-level SEC East opponent was just what South Carolina needed. But the Gamecocks will have to get better to beat an American Athletic Conference team on the road.