South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said the Gamecocks have plenty to play for, just not the championship goals they had entering the season.
South Carolina (4-4, 2-4 Southeastern Conference) was the preseason favorite to win the SEC East, yet saw those dreams slip away the first month of the season with losses to Texas A&M, Missouri and Kentucky. After falling 42-35 at No. 4 Auburn last Saturday night, Spurrier is simply looking to close strong enough to make the postseason.
"We didn't have six (wins) on the list at the beginning of the year," Spurrier said Tuesday. "We thought were going to be pretty good."
Spurrier's assessment looked flawed from the start after a season-opening, 52-28 beat down by Texas A&M. The Gamecocks squandered double-digit, fourth-quarter leads in the Missouri and Kentucky defeats.
South Carolina and Auburn were tied at 35-all entering the final period, but Gamecocks quarterback Dylan Thompson threw two interceptions down the stretch as the Tigers held on.
"It was worst red zone offense we've had around here in a long time," Spurrier said. "I can't remember three times inside the 20 without getting any points and as it turned out that was a big thing that really hurt us. But it's happened, and you try to learn from it, and try not to repeat the same mistakes that occurred in the last game. So, hopefully, we can move on."
That starts Saturday night against Tennessee (3-5, 0-4), which was defeated the Gamecocks a year ago for one of its two SEC victories in 2013.
Spurrier said the Vols have come close to beating Georgia (35-32 loss) and Florida (10-9 loss) and play much harder than their record.
"If we're going to have a chance this week, we've got to match their intensity and effort level," he said.
South Carolina must stay mentally strong after losing out on many of their preseason goals, said receiver Pharoh Cooper.
"It's tough," he said. "We lost our first game and planned to be 11-1. We lost two more and we planned not to lose anymore. I guess from here on out we'll focus on one at a time on Tennessee and try and finish out 8-4 or 9-4 on the season."
It won't be a simple road with games at Florida and No. 22 Clemson still left for the Gamecocks. Combined with Tennessee, those three rivals were part of what South Carolina fans feared as the team's annual "Orange Crush" stretch where the Gamecocks struggled to win.
These days, Spurrier's had the number of all those rivals: South Carolina's won three of four against the Vols and Gators, and five in a row against Clemson.
"We've got to play a lot better than what we've been doing to give ourselves a chance," the coach said.
Tennessee cornerback Cam Sutton said the Vols hope to win enough this final month to reach the postseason, too. "These last four weeks are critical," he said. "We're approaching each game as a new week and just preparing well, just making sure we're prepared to come out and give everything we have."
Spurrier wants his players to do the same, even if an SEC title won't be at stake. He recalled a conversation with former linebacker Demario Jeffery from last year before South Carolina's 11-2 season. Jeffery had asked Spurrier why he had eight victories on the list of goals.
"That's because if it goes bad," Spurrier told him, 'we're still going to try and win eight games."
Spurrier thought in August the Gamecocks would be well on their way to passing that goal and seeking bigger things.
The coach said, "We had a false sense of what was going to happen, I guess."
AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.