A MINUTE INTO South Carolina's 20-6 loss at Alabama, it looked like the Outback Bowl all over again.
Just as on New Year's Day in Tampa, Fla., Stephen Garcia's first pass Saturday sailed into the hands of an opposing player - this one an Alabama safety named Mark Barron who returned the interception 77 yards for a touchdown before the houndstooth-clad sorority sisters had settled into their seats.
Garcia's first-possession pick against Iowa begat another turnover, which begat another, which begat a fourth giveaway. Nothing will ruin a Florida homecoming quicker than four turnovers on the opening four drives.
But facing a 7-0 deficit against the nation's second-ranked team, Garcia did not panic, start forcing throws or let the game get away from the Gamecocks.
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Garcia was far from perfect. He overthrew a streaking Jason Barnes on what would have been a certain touchdown. He held on to the ball too long a couple times when he should have thrown it away. And he failed to get the Gamecocks into the end zone, the first time since last year's Florida game that USC was held without a touchdown.
But when everyone at Bryant-Denny Stadium knew USC was passing in the second half, Garcia hung in against an Alabama rush that sacked him five times (the most allowed by the Gamecocks this year).
Garcia walked gingerly into the interview room late Saturday night favoring his right knee, still wearing his padded pants and eye black and looking like one of those Greek warriors he admires.
Garcia did not return home victorious. After just 10 career starts, the right-hander remains a work in progress.
"He's not where we hope he can be someday as a quarterback," USC coach Steve Spurrier said Sunday. "We've got a lot of coaching to do with Stephen if we're going to get him to the level of being a really top-level quarterback."
But other than Tim Tebow and Ryan Mallett, which SEC quarterbacks have played better than Garcia this season?
In two games against top-5 teams, Garcia outplayed Mississippi's Jevan Snead and Alabama's Greg McElroy. He can make all the throws required of a quarterback in Spurrier's offense, and has the athleticism to escape the pocket and make plays with his feet.
Spurrier, who expects a lot from his quarterbacks, wants to see Garcia improve his footwork when he throws. But after the much-publicized, off-the-field problems early in his career, Garcia seems to have his head in a better place.
The night before the Outback Bowl, Spurrier was said to be miffed at finding Garcia playing video games rather than going over his reads and checks. And while Garcia still will miss an audible or make an ill-advised throw, he appears more serious about his craft.
Credit the influence of first-year quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus. But give Garcia some credit, as well.
After the loss in Tuscaloosa, a reporter asked Garcia if he could take solace in the fact that he recovered from the pick-six to play a solid game.
"I don't know if we recovered from it," Garcia said. "Scoring six points isn't what I'd really call recovering. I guess you've got to forget those kind of plays."
Garcia later said he needed to learn from the bad plays. And with each game, the learning curve gets a little less steep.
The next step is for Garcia to go on the road and win one of these big SEC games.
"I really believe he's trying the best he can," Spurrier said. "He's just gotta get his habits a lot better fundamentally sound to really be a top-notch player. But he's got time."
More than halfway through the season, there has not been a peep from Spurrier about rotating quarterbacks or getting backup Reid McCollum significant playing time.
That fact alone seems to signal progress.