FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. | THERE IS A SURE-FIRE WAY to judge teams this late in the college football season. Some appear to get better from week to week. Others seem to regress.
Put South Carolina in the latter category after Saturday's demoralizing 33-16 loss to Arkansas. It followed a disheartening 31-13 loss at Tennessee.
What makes both losses difficult for USC faithful to swallow is that while the Gamecocks appear to be heading south, Tennessee and Arkansas looked to be much improved from early in the season.
"We're just not real good right now," Steve Spurrier said. "I don't know how to say it. Coaches are coaching their butts off. We're just not getting results right now."
Garrett Anderson is a senior who has made 26 starts in his four seasons at USC. He knows all about frustration. Yet even he was at a loss for the precise words to describe just how maddening the past two games have been to him, the USC offense and the team as a whole.
"Outrageous," Anderson said in an exasperated tone. "I can't really think of a bunch of words to describe it. We're way much better than this. We haven't played nearly as well as we can.
"We had shown some improvement, but we've slipped. We're not playing anywhere near as well as we can. At moments, we look decent out there, but we're not playing nearly as well as we can."
Stephen Garcia said on a scale of one to 10, he would put the team's frustration level at seven or eight.
"We're just not playing where we would like to play and where our capability is," Garcia said. "That's the frustrating part.
"We moved the ball, but we just killed ourselves, and that's another frustrating part. We're hurting ourselves. Move down the field, then end drives with penalties, turnovers, sacks, get out of field goal position. It's hurting us against these good teams."
In past seasons, USC could use a difficult end-of-season schedule as a crutch for slipping down the stretch. That has not been the case this go-round, or at least for the past two weeks.
Tennessee, with a win over Memphis on Saturday, improved to 5-4 overall and remains 2-3 in the SEC. Arkansas with Saturday's win is 5-4 overall and 2-4 in the league. Neither Tennessee nor Arkansas is a challenger for an SEC title, and both have work to do to become bowl eligible.
In other words, USC had a chance to beat either or both, and the Gamecocks knew it.
"Very quiet, very quiet," linebacker Eric Norwood said of the atmosphere in the USC locker room afterward. "We know we should have won this one."
USC will not win these types of late-season games until it begins to show marked improvement from one game to the next over the course of a season, something that has not occurred since the Gamecocks won three straight to conclude the 2006 season.
There probably is good reason USC's defense has lost ground the past few weeks. Without four starters, as USC was on Saturday, any defense would expect a drop in production. But that does not explain how a team can go three consecutive games without forcing a turnover.
On offense, USC has pointed to youth as a reason for its inability to consistently produce points. No doubt, most of USC's skill position players are young or short on experience.
But that is the kind of unit that should be improving with each game. Yet, USC's offense continues to sputter along. It looks brilliant at times - like on the first play of the second half when Garcia hit Alshon Jeffrey for an 80-yard touchdown strike - but equally futile and inept at other times.
Therein lies the frustration.
"We still haven't played a game where anybody is satisfied yet," Garcia said. "Once we've played that, once we finally get that game, then I think everybody will finally understand what it's like and see how much fun it is."
Unfortunately, USC's last two cracks at playing its best game of the season come against two quality opponents, No. 1-ranked Florida and Clemson. It is entirely possible USC could turn out back-to-back outstanding performances and still lose both games.
At this point, with no championship to play for, the conclusion to the regular season should be all about getting better and better. Long range - beyond this season - that will prove profitable for USC.
Do not hold your breath believing it will happen.