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South Carolina hopes to continue rise against Vanderbilt

  • FILE - In this Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017, file photo, South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley (19) throws a pass in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Tennessee, in Knoxville, Tenn. South Carolina figured to be a work in progress in coach Will Muschamp’s second season. But headed into their break, the Gamecocks are among the Southeastern Conference’s biggest surprises at 5-2 and have their sights set on even bigger things the rest of the way. (AP Photo/Wade Payne, File)
  • FILE - In this Oct. 7, 2017, file photo, Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason jogs off the field after the first half of an NCAA college football game against Georgia in Nashville, Tenn. The Commodores finally had a week off to rest up and catch their breath after a grueling month of ranked opponents. Now the big question is whether or not they can get back to how well they played when the season started as they prepare to visit South Carolina.(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina coach Will Muschamp is not ready to talk about the Gamecocks chances of winning a Southeastern Conference title, no matter how much the team’s surprising play keep them rising toward the top.

The chances are long (No. 3 Georgia and always dangerous Florida await in October). Yet if things fall their way, it could be the Gamecocks (5-2, 3-2 SEC) playing in Atlanta for the chance at a league crown.

Muschamp’s not buying it. And he doesn’t want his players pay attention to it either, only preparing for Vanderbilt (3-4, 0-4) on Saturday.

“We’re focused on Vanderbilt right now,” he said. “Anything past that really doesn’t matter. We have to accomplish what we need to accomplish on Saturday afternoon. That’s been our focus.”

The Gamecocks, who’ve won two straight and three of their past four , are tied for second with Florida in the SEC East behind undefeated Georgia.

It’s understandable for Gamecock fans to seize on their team’s hot start after three seasons of disappointing play. South Carolina went 7-6 in 2014 that followed three straight 11-2 seasons. Then coach Steve Spurrier walked away in the middle of 2015’s 3-9 debacle before Muschamp led the Gamecocks to a 6-7 mark in his first season.

Gamecocks quarterback Jake Bentley said the team knew it had potential to defy expectations. The important task now for players is to keep their minds right.

“We knew we could execute at a high level,” he said. “So the guys did and we’re going to continue to do that, lock into what we have to do and limit all the distractions.”

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Some other things to watch when Vanderbilt plays at South Carolina:

WITH THIS RING: There will be some extra bling at Williams-Brice Stadium as South Carolina’s national champion women’s basketball team will receive their commemorative rings during halftime of the game with Vanderbilt on Saturday. All members of the team are expected to be back for the ceremonies, including first-round WNBA picks Alaina Coates, Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray. The women’s team will be celebrity starters for the game and coach Dawn Staley will be recognized between the first and second quarters.

PROTECT BETTER: Vanderbilt had done an excellent job of protecting quarterback Kyle Shurmur this season until the Commodores’ trip to Oxford where Mississippi piled up seven sacks. Vandy had allowed Shurmur to be sacked only three times combined through the first six games, and neither Alabama nor Georgia put the quarterback on the ground. Mason said they got sloppy and left some open edges. “We paid the price … we’re not going to make the same mistake twice. We’ll make sure Kyle stays upright,” Mason said.

WELCOME BACK: A trio of injured offensive line starters should be back on the field for South Carolina. Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp said tackles Zack Bailey and Malik Young and guard Cory Helms — all who started the opening game for South Carolina — have all healed up enough to return. Muschamp’s not sure if any of them will start on a group that has steadily improved through the season. But he guaranteed they will see action.

RUN DEFENSE: The biggest reason Mason went back to the basics of tackling during Vanderbilt’s open date last week was because his Commodores have given up 1,389 yards rushing in their four-game skid. Mason said sometimes at Vanderbilt it’s easy to overthink something. Not in this case. The Commodores simply didn’t tackle well enough, and he said his defenders have to tackle the way they know how to fix the problem.

WATCH FOR WONNUM: South Carolina defensive end D.J. Wonnum is having a bit of moment the past couple of weeks, named the Southeastern Conference defensive lineman of the week after his past two games. Wonnum, a 6-foot-4, 251-pound sophomore, had four tackles and broke up two passes in a 48-22 victory over Arkansas on Oct. 7. Wonnum made six tackles, two of them sacks, in a 15-9 win at Tennessee on Oct. 14.

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AP Sports Writer Teresa Walker from Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.

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