COLUMBIA — Tennessee has played one of the toughest conference schedules in college football so far.

The Volunteers are 0-4 in the Southeastern Conference, with losses to No. 18 Florida, No. 5 Georgia, No. 19 Mississippi State and No. 1 Alabama. The Georgia and Mississippi State games were on the road. Those four teams are currently ranked Nos. 3, 12, 13 and 1.

Things get easier for Tennessee in November, when it plays Troy, Missouri, Vanderbilt and Kentucky. None of those teams are ranked. Missouri is 0-4 in the SEC, Vanderbilt 2-3 and Kentucky 0-5. Only the Vanderbilt game is on the road.

But this Saturday, the Volunteers must travel to another ranked team – No. 17 South Carolina. It’s a chance for oft-criticized third-year coach Derek Dooley to show some progress. He went 3-5 and 1-7 in the SEC in his first two years, marking Tennessee’s first back-to-back losing SEC records since 1976-77. Between then and 2010, Dooley’s first year, the Volunteers had just three losing SEC records, including 3-5 in 2005 and 2008 under Phillip Fulmer.

If Tennessee loses to USC, it’s guaranteed to have a losing SEC record for the third straight year – something that hasn’t happened since 1962-64, when the Volunteers had three coaches in three years and went 2-6, 3-5 and 1-5-1.

The Volunteers’ defense has struggled against league competition, allowing 43.2 points, 525.8 yards and 246 rushing yards per game – worst in the SEC in all three categories. Tennessee’s pass defense against SEC teams (279.8 yards per game) is second worst. Obviously, the Volunteers have played tough league opponents, but their 525.8 yards allowed per game are 82.8 more than any other SEC team.

While defense remains Tennessee’s biggest issue, quarterback Tyler Bray hasn’t been great against SEC teams, either. Against league competition, he is completing 51.4 percent of his passes for 217.5 yards per game (6.2 per attempt), six touchdowns and eight interceptions. He has six picks and four touchdowns in the past three games – Georgia, Mississippi State and Alabama.

New goal for USC

The Gamecocks likely will not win the SEC for the first time, as they need a maze of tiebreakers to even get to the league’s championship game.

“We’ve got to accept the fact that we’re not going to win the SEC this year, and we’ve accepted that,” said USC coach Steve Spurrier. “We’ve got plenty of other goals out there. The one we are trying to do right now is win our home games. You’ve always got to have hope, and when it’s gone, ‘All right, what’s our next goal?’ That’s why as a coach, I’ve always like to set eight to 10 goals, to see how many you can hit as you go through the year.”

USC is 4-0 at home this year, with Arkansas and Wofford coming to Columbia after Tennessee.

Clowney on Maxwell list

Like the Heisman Trophy, the Maxwell Award is given annually to college football’s best player. The Maxwell watch list comprised 65 players before the season, and seven were added Wednesday, including USC defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. He’s eighth nationally with 7½ sacks and third with 14 tackles for loss.