At some point, perhaps, South Carolina's weird season will begin to make sense. Because the one thing that was clear was that Auburn was going to blow the Gamecocks out of the water. This was a team that had lost to Missouri at home and lost to Kentucky on the road, in both cases having a lot to do with defensive meltdowns, traveling to Auburn.
But South Carolina's season makes no such sense, and the same team that lost to mid-tier SEC East foes also beat Georgia and East Carolina, then almost managed on Saturday to take down one of the contenders in the SEC West. Almost being the key word -- because Auburn withstood an on-sides kick, a staggering run of fourth-down conversions and its own defensive struggles to escape the upset and remain in the hunt for the championship of college football's best division and a spot in the sport's first playoff.
In many ways, South Carolina's plan was vintage Steve Spurrier, a mix of trick plays and gambles that saw the Gamecocks go six-of-14 on third-down conversions while going five-of-six on fourth-down attempts. A successful on-sides kick in the third quarter came up empty when Dylan Thompson threw an ill-timed interception, part of a night that saw the South Carolina quarterback go 29-of-50 passing for 402 yards, five touchdowns and three picks (the last a game-ending Hail Mary).
Auburn, meanwhile, did what it does so well all the time and what most of South Carolina's opponents have had an easy time doing against the Gamecocks: It ran the ball. And then it ran the ball some more. In the end, the Tigers rushed the ball 47 times for 395 yards, an average of 8.4 yards a carry. Nick Marshall was once again sparing but efficient throwing the ball, ending the night 12-of-14 for 139 yards and a touchdown. Marshall ran the ball 10 times for 89 yards and three scores.
The Tigers also mixed in some trick plays, and both teams threw haymaker after haymaker as their offensive stars shined. For South Carolina: Pharoh Cooper had seven catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns. Mike Davis had 88 yards rushing on 21 carries and 85 receiving yards and a touchdown on six catches. For Auburn: Cameron Artis-Payne had 25 carries for 167 yards and a touchdown. Ricardo Louis had just three carries, but one of them was a 75-yard touchdown, and he ended the game with 102 yards.
In the end, Auburn had 551 yards to 535 for South Carolina. The teams combined for 55 first downs. The game was tied on five separate occasions not counting the beginning of the game. It wasn't a rout; instead, it was a whale of a game.
Which doesn't mean that much except for the entertainment of viewers and perhaps more information in our season-long effort to figure out what South Carolina is going to do next. From Auburn's perspective, a win is a win, and they keep pace in the SEC West. The loss to Mississippi State still stings, but the Bulldogs looked a bit more vulnerable at Kentucky on Saturday than they have before -- and even if Mississippi State don't end the season with two conference losses, there's the possibility of a multi-team tie that could send Auburn to Atlanta.
For South Carolina, the game offered the first real hope since late September that the season could end on a positive note. The schedule is not terribly difficult -- vs. Tennessee, at Florida, vs. South Alabama and at Clemson -- meaning that a 7-5 or 8-4 record is still possible, with nine wins post-bowl within reach. That such a mark would be a disappointment for South Carolina is a sign more of how far the Gamecocks have come under Spurrier than anything else. But hope is not reality, and South Carolina has shown an ability to surprise us, for better and for worse, just when we think we've got them figured out.