COLUMBIA — Bobby Johnson is doing what they said couldn't be done. He's turning Vanderbilt into a contender in the SEC.

Evidence of that came here at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday afternoon when his Commodores upset sixth-ranked South Carolina, 17-6.

"We're a pretty good team when we play well," said Johnson, who is in his sixth season at the Nashville school. "And we played well today."

So well, in fact, that Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks were never in the game despite every effort to garner some kind of offense against a tough Vandy defense.

"This is the best we've played on both sides of the ball since I've been here," said Johnson, a Columbia native, a Clemson graduate and former head coach at Furman University in Greenville. "We were bringing five people on defense 70 percent of the time. We didn't want their quarterbacks to have time to sit back and read and rip us apart."

That aggressive game plan resulted in seven sacks as the USC offense disintegrated before a home crowd of more than 79,000 fans who kept waiting for the Gamecocks' luck to turn.

It never did.

"You have to give Vandy credit," Spurrier said. "They beat us."

Born to coach

That is no small statement in this topsy-turvy world of college football where Vanderbilt has always served as the doormat in the Southeastern Conference. As the only private school in this powerhouse football league, coaching at Vandy has always been a challenge.

One that Johnson has prepared for all this life.

A graduate of Eau Claire High School here in the capital city, Johnson lettered as a receiver and quarterback at Clemson in the early 1970s, but was born to coach.

Tutored by legendary coaches like Art Baker and Dick Sheridan, he served as an assistant at Furman with short stints at Clemson before taking the Paladins helm in 1994 where he won three Southern Conference titles and took his team to the I-AA national title game before moving on to Nashville.

While he knew his winning percentage would suffer at the school that doesn't dance around with academics, he also knew that doing the right was the only way he knew how to do it.

That effort, however, has paid off with steady improvement over the course of his tenure.

The misconception

Nothing, however, comes easy in this league.

The Commodores could have come into this game with a heavy hangover from last week's 20-17 heartbreaking loss to Georgia in the final moments of the game.

"That loss actually got us a little angry," said Johnson, whose team improved to 4-3 overall and 2-3 in the SEC. "We wanted to prove we could win this kind of game."

They showed that early by taking advantage of two USC turnovers and taking a 17-6 halftime lead over the Gamecocks.

"I'm sure some people thought we would fold in the second half of this game," Johnson said. "But that's the misconception about Vanderbilt. Our guys want to win."

Which they did, easily. Much too easily for the likes of many South Carolina fans who wanted to believe their nationally ranked Gamecocks would eventually muster some sort of comeback.

But they didn't. Or, couldn't.

Spurrier even tried bringing in estranged quarterback Blake Mitchell in hopes of sparking some kind of offensive threat. Nothing, however, worked.

Once again the Gamecocks were miserable on third down conversions (2 of 24 for the last two games), and the defense couldn't stop Vanderbilt's determined offense.

"Today it didn't matter who played quarterback," Spurrier said.

Proverbial hump

To say this was a big day for Johnson and Vanderbilt would be a bit of an understatement.

Consider that the last time the Commodores beat a team this highly ranked was back in 1937 when they defeated sixth-ranked LSU.

But when asked if this game got them over the proverbial hump, Johnson said, "I don't believe in that hump. In this league, that hump comes back every week. This is not a statement game unless we play good next week and the next week and the next week.

"In the league we play in, we can never say we're here, we've done it. We've gotta keep fighting."

Such is life in the SEC, where even Vandy isn't Vandy anymore.

Reach Ken Burger at kburger@postandcourier.com or (843) 937-5598