KNOXVILLE, Tenn. | As he picked himself up off the Neyland Stadium turf Saturday, South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia had a white beanbag at his feet - a mocking reminder of the Gamecocks' third fumble of the first half.
By the time the rain stopped and the turnovers slowed, USC was in a self-made hole that was too big to crawl out of.
Tennessee scored 21 points off the three early fumbles and rolled to a 31-13 victory against the 21st-ranked Gamecocks on a wet and dreary night in Knoxville.
USC (6-3, 3-3 SEC) dropped to 1-14 all-time at Tennessee and still has never beaten the Vols (4-4, 2-3) in consecutive seasons. The Gamecocks' loss, combined with Florida's win against Georgia, clinched the SEC East for the Gators two weeks before their Nov. 14 game at USC.
The Gamecocks entered the game with nine turnovers in eight games, but they had three in the first 16 minutes Saturday. USC coughed up the ball twice in its first five offensive plays and trailed by two touchdowns after four minutes.
It was reminiscent of USC's 20-6 loss at No. 2 Alabama, where Garcia threw an interception on his first pass attempt that was returned 77 yards for a touchdown.
"It's tough beating teams on the road, especially teams in the SEC (and) good teams like we're playing now, when you spot 'em points," Garcia said.
Besides Garcia, the other fumbles were by freshman tight end Justice Cunningham, on his second career reception, and tailback Kenny Miles. It was the first fumble in 90 career touches for Miles, whose first-half fumble last week against Vanderbilt was overturned by instant replay.
All three fumbles came in USC territory, giving the Vols short fields. Tennessee's three scoring drives after the fumbles covered 43, 27 and 29 yards.
Garcia tossed a fourth-quarter interception, giving the Gamecocks a season-high four turnovers. USC entered the game tied for third in the SEC for fewest turnovers.
"We didn't plan on that. We didn't plan on a lot of things that happened, but it did," USC coach Steve Spurrier said.
The Gamecocks finished with more first downs (19 to 15) and total yards (365 to 341) than Tennessee but lost the turnover battle 4-0. It was the second straight week USC failed to force a turnover.
While the Gamecocks played giveaway, the ball that Tennessee put on the ground somehow avoided USC's reach. Quarterback Jonathan Crompton's first-half fumble squirted under linebacker Shaq Wilson and was recovered by Crompton.
Garcia threw for 300 yards on 25-of-50 passing, the second consecutive week he has passed for at least 300 yards. The right-hander cited the rain when asked about the fumbles.
"The ball was a little soaking wet," he said. "But that's not an excuse. We've just gotta hold on to the ball."
It was a tough night for passing, which USC was forced to do a lot after falling behind 21-0. Both Garcia and Tennessee quarterback Jonathan Crompton completed 50 percent of their passes, below their season averages.
Tennessee first-year coach Lane Kiffin said he talked to his team before the game about the importance of ball protection on a rainy night.
"The whole game was going to be about turnovers," Kiffin said. "So it was going to be about protecting the ball, and we pride ourselves on that."
"I think we were plus-four in turnover margin," Crompton said. "And whenever that happens, we've got a good shot of winning the game."
USC's defense looked deflated at times in the second half.
Free safety Chris Culliver gave a half-hearted tackle attempt on a 23-yard run by Tennessee tailback Montario Hardesty, who nearly stayed in bounds for a touchdown. Hardesty scored a play later, knifing through the middle for a 7-yard touchdown that gave the Vols a 28-6 lead with 3:25 remaining in the third quarter.
The Gamecocks' offense showed signs of life after the Hardesty touchdown.
After consecutive 23-yard gains on a Weslye Saunders reception and a Miles run, Garcia lofted a 31-yard touchdown pass to Moe Brown, who made a diving catch in the end zone.
It was the first touchdown Tennessee has allowed since the fourth quarter of a 26-22 loss to Auburn on Oct. 3, a stretch spanning 175 minutes and 10-plus quarters. And it was just the fifth time this season the Vols have given up a play of 25 yards or more.
"It wasn't anything special they were doing," Brown said. "We gave 'em their first 21 points."
"That's just being disciplined. That's Football 101," Brown added. "You learn that in rec league - hold on to the ball."
Sounds easy. It was anything but for the Gamecocks on Saturday.