STEVE SPURRIER AND ELLIS JOHNSON had a difficult time getting the bitter taste of South Carolina's Papajohns.com Bowl performance against Connecticut out of their mouths immediately following Saturday's game.
The game was supposed to be another building block toward next season, one in which USC could be a contender for the SEC East championship. Instead, it turned out to be another indictment on a program that seems to be permanently stuck in neutral.
It was not so much the loss to Connecticut that hurt. It was more about a youthful USC team playing with little heart, little excitement and little execution. All the optimism from a promising victory five weeks earlier against Clemson was wiped away in one bitter cold afternoon in Birmingham.
"You make two steps forward, one step back and here we go again," said Johnson, who could not have summed up the plight of this USC football team any better.
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As difficult as it was for Spurrier and Johnson to accept such a dismal showing in the post-season - and one giant step backward for the program - neither could overlook the two steps forward the Gamecocks made in 2009.
First, and above all else, USC established itself as a top-level defensive team. It also was a season for Stephen Garcia to cement himself as an SEC-caliber quarterback who is ready to blossom into one of the league's best.
Let's look at the defense first. It is not a stretch to say the defense carried this team to a 7-5 record. Only the Georgia and Arkansas losses could be pinned on the defense, which ranked third in the SEC in yards allowed and fifth in scoring, rushing and pass defense.
If the defense had a shortcoming, it was an inability to force turnovers. Only Georgia, with 10, gained fewer turnovers by the opposition than USC's 16. The result was a minus-three turnover total that ranked ninth in the SEC.
There is every reason to believe that number will change dramatically next season. With eight starters returning and 19 of its top 22 players coming back, all of USC's numbers on defense should improve.
This could be a dominating defense.
"When you just get out the piece of paper and start marking who's gone and who's coming back, there is reason for optimism," said Johnson, the assistant head coach in charge of the defense. "But those guys coming back, some of them have got to grow up, some of them have got to get better, some of them have got to work a little harder in the offseason and make sure they do a good job in their academics.
"There is reason to believe we can be a very good defense next year, if the kids really commit themselves. . . . If they do all the right things to make themselves better in the offseason, we've got a chance to be pretty darned good."
All-American linebacker Eric Norwood, defensive tackle Nathan Pepper and strong safety Darian Stewart are huge losses on defense. But this year of seasoning for the returning players should pay huge dividends.
As for Garcia, his up-and-down season was typical of a quarterback starting for his first full season in the SEC. Even the great ones - Peyton Manning, Danny Wuerffel and Matthew Stafford - suffered growing pains.
There seemed to be recognition at the end of the season that Garcia can be a dangerous quarterback with his legs as well as his arm. By adding the read-option package, USC makes Garcia more of a quarterback in the Tim Tebow vein.
Garcia's most efficient games were those in which USC established a running attack. In so doing, USC takes much of the pressure off Garcia's shoulders. USC needs to shift much of that pressure to its strength . . . the defense.
For that to happen will take a drastic change in USC's mentality, a shift in thinking that must begin with Spurrier. Understandably, that will not be easy. Spurrier won SEC championships and a national title at Florida while building his reputation as an offensive genius.
Yet now more than ever there should be a realization that USC can win games and contend for championships with its defense. Its offense, unable to consistently run up big numbers and quick scores in five seasons, should change its philosophy and become a clock-eating machine.
Spurrier showed signs of accepting that change in the win against Clemson, and somewhat in the loss to Connecticut. The read-option for Garcia, the Wildcock formation with Stephon Gilmore taking snaps from center, and a short-passing game all play into establishing a consistent running attack.
After a showing like USC's against Connecticut, it is difficult to accept that the Gamecocks are not far from being a challenger in the SEC East. Do not be fooled. This team is close.
It helps that the league's power seems to be shifting to the West Division for next season, and USC's conference schedule is more favorable in 2010 with home games against Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas.
There also was a silver lining to be found in the loss to Connecticut. Had USC won, there no doubt would have been a false sense of bravado within the program and among its fans. There was some talk that USC could be the favorite in the SEC East next season.
Now, USC can fly more under the radar. It has an outstanding coaching staff. The youthfulness of this season will convert to seasoned talent next year. The ingredients are there for Spurrier to throw his program into overdrive.
Maybe, just maybe, by this time next year USC also will have learned how to show up and play its heart out in every game.