South Carolina started strong and suffered through another second-half skid before salvaging the season with a stirring 34-17 victory against Clemson.
And while the Gamecocks were one of six 7-5 teams in the SEC, USC coach Steve Spurrier does not believe all 7-5 squads are created equal.
"I thought our 7-5 might have been better than some other 7-5's because of strength of schedule," Spurrier said.
The Gamecocks faced eight bowl teams - beating three of them - and are going to a bowl for the fourth time in five seasons under Spurrier. Given that USC started twice as many freshmen and sophomores as seniors, the Gamecocks ended up where most figured they would.
Maybe not Birmingham exactly - but as All-SEC linebacker Eric Norwood pointed out, at 7-5, the Gamecocks did not have a lot of leverage. But a win against Connecticut in the Jan. 2 Papajohns.com Bowl would allow this team to match USC's best record under Spurrier.
The State hands out its USC postseason awards.
Offensive player of the year: QB Stephen Garcia
Garcia has started all 12 games and taken every significant snap - a fact that speaks to his toughness (he was sacked 34 times) and the improvement he made in his first full season as a starter.
Only Arkansas' Ryan Mallett has thrown for more yards than Garcia among SEC quarterbacks. And though Garcia is not in the top 10 in the conference in passing efficiency, the right-hander cut down on his turnovers and made better decisions.
Defensive player of the year: LB Eric Norwood
From the moment he announced he was returning to school for his senior year, Norwood was USC's best player. And he played like it.
Even when Norwood drew extra blockers and went more than a month without a sack, the Georgia native found ways to be disruptive. Norwood, USC's first three-time all-conference player leads the team in quarterback pressures, interceptions and blocked kicks, and is tied with Cliff Matthews for the lead in sacks.
If Norwood makes an All-American team, USC should consider retiring his number.
Freshman of the year CB Stephon Gilmore
Many of USC's freshmen made significant contributions. Kenny Miles leads the Gamecocks in rushing, Alshon Jeffery is the top receiver, and right guard T.J. Johnson was the only offensive lineman to start every game.
But Gilmore was terrific at boundary corner, preserving the victory against N.C. State by knocking down a pass in the end zone and tying for the team lead with eight pass breakups.
Gilmore also emerged as a dangerous punt returner. And based on his performance at the WildCock position against Clemson, Gilmore should expect to see more snaps on offense next season.
Game of the year: Clemson
The 16-10 win against No. 4 Mississippi was the biggest home win in school history in terms of the opponent's ranking. But had the Gamecocks lost to Clemson, they would have limped into the bowl game on a four-game losing streak with a lot of negativity swirling around the program.
After allowing C.J. Spiller's 88-yard touchdown return on the opening kickoff, USC dominated every phase of a game it had to win.
Hit of the year: SS Darian Stewart vs. Clemson
Not many players can hang with Tigers receiver Jacoby Ford once the former ACC 60-meter champion gets a head of steam. But when Stewart flew across the line of scrimmage, beat a blocker and nailed Ford to blow up a quick screen, it showed the Gamecocks have a little speed themselves.
Stat of the year
The Gamecocks made six interceptions, fewer than all but 10 teams in the country. But USC finished the regular season ranked third in the SEC in total defense, behind Alabama and Florida.
Odd stats of the year
USC threw the same number of passes (402) as it did in 2008. The Gamecocks scored one more point this season (261) than last season (260) while allowing two more (245 to 243).
Quote of the year
"It's going to be the same as any other game, except it's Clemson." - Stephen Garcia