Next step the hardest for Vanderbilt

Lost in all the chatter about South Carolina not looking like a top-10 team on Thursday night in its 17-13 escape at Vanderbilt is the fact that just maybe the Commodores are going to be a tough out for everybody they play this season.

In fact, I think they'll surpass the two SEC wins they managed a year ago in James Franklin's first season and will get back to a bowl game.

They're as salty as ever on defense, and you have to love the way they keep attacking. They're not very big up front, and Chase Garnham will get more comfortable at middle linebacker as the season goes on. But this is another defense under Bob Shoop that's going to create a bunch of turnovers, and boy, will they hit you.

The offensive line also held its own against a South Carolina defensive line that was supposed to be one of the SEC's best. The Commodores helped a lot (and, yes, held some) on South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, but let's also give left tackle Wesley Johnson some credit for standing in there and not allowing Clowney to take over the game. In the second half, we barely even heard Clowney's name.

On further review, the killer for the Commodores was that pass interference call in the final minutes that wasn't called. When I saw the play live, I thought Jordan Matthews should have caught the ball, but replays clearly show that South Carolina safety D.J. Swearinger yanked Matthews' left hand away before the ball got there, and Matthews was reduced to trying to catch the ball with one hand.

Franklin was barking at the official from the sideline to throw the flag, but wasn't biting afterward when asked about the no-call.

"You did know the SEC just came out with very clear rules about talking about the officials and what happens after games," Franklin said. "Trying to get me fined?"

The important thing now is that Vanderbilt find a way to bounce back next week at Northwestern. Because after a home game against Presbyterian the following week, the Commodores go on the road for two straight SEC games against Georgia and Missouri. They don't want to be 1-2 going into that stretch.

I realize that playing teams close and simply not being able to get it done in the fourth quarter has been a Vanderbilt curse since long before I started covering the SEC.

But there's something to be said for learning how to win the close games. That's the next step for these Commodores. Franklin has absolutely changed the culture. He's recruited better talent. He's upgraded the depth. This team plays with an edge that is a direct reflection of its head coach.

Now comes the hardest part -- turning close losses into close wins.

The Commodores have now lost seven of their last eight SEC games going back to last season, and their last five losses have been by a combined 23 points.

Those are the ones that hurt the most. You could see it in the faces of the Vanderbilt players as they left the field Thursday night. They genuinely expected to win that game.

It hasn't always been that way on West End.

"We're just glad to get out of here with a win," said South Carolina tight end Justice Cunningham, who can attest to how hard the Commodores hit after getting his helmet knocked off on a catch over the middle. "There will be a lot of teams this season that leave this place with a loss. Vanderbilt's legit."