Unlike two years ago, South Carolina will not be left home for the holidays this year come bowl season.
Barring the unexpected - Florida losing to Florida International, Alabama falling to Chattanooga or Mississippi State beating Arkansas and Mississippi the next two weeks - the Gamecocks will snag one of the SEC's bowl slots regardless of how they fare against Clemson next weekend.
By defeating the Tigers, USC (6-5) could improve its bowl stock in a muddled middle-of-the-SEC pack. With the possibility that 10 conference teams could finish with at least seven wins, the Gamecocks would be headed to one of the SEC's bottom-run bowls - probably the Papajohns.com Bowl in Birmingham against a Big East team - if they finish the regular season 6-6.
But there should be a spot for them, which was not the case in 2007 when the Independence Bowl took 6-6 Alabama over a USC team with the same record.
USC's omission prompted SEC officials to line up a ninth bowl slot - the so-called Pizza Bowl in Birmingham, where the conference office is based.
"When you looked at the landscape of all bowl games, most every spot now was being taken. There were no at-large (bids)," SEC spokesman Charles Bloom said Wednesday. "To protect ourselves and protect our ninth team ... was important."
As it turned out, the SEC could not fill all of its bowl tie-ins last season when eight teams were eligible. This year the league has nine bowl-eligible teams, with Tennessee (5-5) needing one win in its final two games against Vanderbilt and Kentucky to join the list.
Mississippi State (4-6) would need to upset Arkansas and Ole Miss to reach the six wins required for bowl eligibility.
The SEC will be able to accommodate 10 teams this season because - as was the case last season - No. 1 Florida and second-ranked Alabama are both locks for BCS bowl games.
So where does that leave USC?
The Gamecocks' destination hinges on the Clemson game.
Win, and USC is in the hunt for the Chick-fil-A and Music City bowls. Those games would be attractive to Gamecock fans because of their metropolitan locales in Atlanta and Nashville, and the matchup with an ACC opponent in each bowl.
Chick-fil-A president Gary Stokan said he would prefer an 8-win team from the SEC, but is not sure there will be one available when the Chick-fil-A selects after the Capital One, Outback and Cotton bowls.
USC has not played in the Atlanta bowl since 1969, when it was in its second year of existence and still known as the Peach.
"We think enough of South Carolina's fans that, certainly, if they were to beat their archrival Clemson, South Carolina fans would get excited" about coming to Atlanta for the Dec. 31 game, Stokan said.
The Gamecocks have never played in the Music City and faced Vanderbilt in Columbia this season, so fans would not be making a second trip to Nashville.
A loss to Clemson likely would send USC to the Independence or Papajohns.com, which get the last two picks from the SEC's bowl pool.
The Gamecocks lost to Missouri in the Independence in 2005 in Steve Spurrier's first season. USC officials might have trouble convincing fans to travel to Shreveport, La., if the Gamecocks drop their past four games.
It would be an easier trip to Birmingham, where Spurrier coached his final game with Duke in the 1989 All-American Bowl. Spurrier also coached in two SEC championship games with Florida at Legion Field, site of the Papajohns.com Bowl on Jan. 2.
"South Carolina would be a good match for us," Papajohns.com executive director Mark Meadows said. "I think Spurrier would add a lot to the local interest here in Birmingham."
South Florida, Rutgers and West Virginia are in the running for the Big East slot in Birmingham. Choosing last in the SEC bowl lineup, Meadows said USC might not be available at 7-5.
"If they beat Clemson (and) wind up with seven wins, I think they would certainly be attractive to other bowls as well."