If your lasting image of South Carolina's 2009 season is the Papajohns.com Bowl, it could make for a long winter.
Offensive lineman Garrett Anderson summed up the Gamecocks' 20-7 loss to Connecticut succinctly.
"We didn't show up," he said.
USC had one other no-show - a 33-16 loss at Arkansas in November. But the Gamecocks beat their highest-ranked opponent at home in school history when they took down No. 4 Mississippi 16-10 and knocked off 15th-ranked Clemson 34-17 for the first time in three years.
The Gamecocks hung with No. 2 Alabama and No. 1 Florida, but let N.C. State and Vanderbilt hang with them in close wins.
In short, Steve Spurrier's fifth USC team looked a lot like its predecessor - characterized by a tough defense and an inconsistent offense.
"We've never been a great team this year. We've been a decent team," Spurrier said after the loss in Birmingham. "Offensively, we've not done all that much. We scramble around here and there. Defensively, we played pretty solid most of the year."
The 64-year-old Spurrier still hopes to "go big" at USC. Could that happen this year?
The State examines five questions for the 2010 season.
Can Stephen Garcia take the next step?
Garcia improved substantially in his first full season as starting quarterback, making better decisions and cutting down on his interceptions. And anyone who questions Garcia's toughness did not watch him get up after big hits and head back to the huddle.
Garcia still has the tendency to underthrow receivers when he leaves the pocket. Spurrier wants him to re-gather and set his feet rather than throw on the run.
But the biggest issue surrounding Garcia involves his off-field commitment - watching film and studying the game plan on his own, not just when it's required.
From the moment he set foot on campus, Garcia has exuded a devil-may-care attitude. But behind that fun-loving exterior is someone who cares about winning and his teammates.
Need proof? Watch his first-down dive against Kentucky or the tape of him fighting back tears after the bowl game talking about his disappointment for the seniors.
Spurrier said it would be helpful if Garcia takes on more of a leadership role, but he can't force it on him.
"That's something that's natural. It's sort of what your makeup is," Spurrier said. "We would certainly hope that he would show a more serious commitment to really learning everything about how to play the game, how to look the defense over. But he may be doing the best he can. And if he's doing the best he can, then that's all we can expect."
Will the o-line be tough enough?
The offensive line made small strides under Eric Wolford, who left last month after one season to become Youngstown State's head coach. But Wolford often questioned the Gamecocks' talent level and addressed it by helping get commitments from seven linemen before he departed.
New line coach Shawn Elliott, who arrived Monday from Appalachian State, said nobody would outwork the Gamecocks. But in the SEC, hard work only will go so far.
The Gamecocks lose two starters in center Lemuel Jeanpierre and Anderson at guard. It might be expecting too much for a freshman to step in immediately, although coaches hope junior-college transfer Rokevious Watkins and freshman Nick Allison will contribute after redshirting this season.
If the 6-foot-4, 340-pound Watkins gets in shape, he could be someone to watch. Linebacker Eric Norwood said going against Watkins in practice was not fun.
Who calls the offensive plays?
Steve Spurrier Jr. was the primary play-caller in 2008 and the first half of the '09 season before his father took it over down the stretch. Spurrier insists play-calling was not the issue, and it's worth noting the Gamecocks began and ended the season by scoring 7 points against N.C. State and UConn.
"Our biggest problem is not the play calling," Spurrier said. "It's called blocking. It's called quarterback's decisions. It's called all that kind of stuff."
It also could be time for Spurrier to tweak his scheme. The read option was the Gamecocks' best running play the final two games, and Stephon Gilmore's insertion at the WildCock position changed momentum in the Clemson win.
Spurrier has talked about letting quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus call the plays - something Mangus did as Middle Tennessee's offensive coordinator and as a Division III head coach. Spurrier also might consider having another assistant join Spurrier Jr. in the press box on game days.
"Sometimes I think we need more eyes up top," he said. "An eye on the line of scrimmage and an eye on the secondary I think would help us a little bit."
Who replaces Eric Norwood's production?
Probably not just one player, considering Norwood led or tied for the team lead in sacks, quarterback pressures, tackles for loss, interceptions and blocked kicks. But defensive end Cliff Matthews also has the ability to take over a game, which is why Spurrier said Matthews might be the lone junior he would "beg" to return for his final season.
Matthews, whose seven sacks tied Norwood for the team lead, has indicated he plans to be back. Free safety Chris Culliver, who also is mulling his NFL options, did not have the kind of season he hoped for as he battled a shoulder injury.
A healthy Culliver would provide a big boost to a secondary featuring returning cornerbacks Gilmore and Akeem Auguste and strong safety DeVonte Holloman, who looks like a natural ball-hawk.
Tackle Ladi Ajiboye and end Clifton Geathers emerged as play-makers toward the end of the season.
So is 2010 the year the Gamecocks contend in the East?
It should be. The members of the 2007 top-10 recruiting class, which Spurrier has pointed to for a couple of seasons, will begin their fourth year in the program.
As long as there are no transfers, NFL defections or academic casualties, USC will return 16 starters and 38 players from the two-deep chart - split evenly among the offense and defense (eight starters and 19 depth-chart members on each).
Still stinging from the bowl loss, Spurrier said the returning players were not guaranteed their spots.
"Just because you've got a lot of guys coming back doesn't mean crap if they can't play any better than they played (Saturday)," he said. "We've got some new guys coming in. We'll have a spirited competition in the spring."
Coaches are hopeful one of those new guys is Byrnes tailback Marcus Lattimore, the state's Mr. Football who is said to have USC and Auburn as his leaders. Lattimore could rejuvenate a rushing attack that has been the SEC's worst three years in a row, but line play will be critical regardless who's in the backfield.
Southern Miss replaces N.C. State as the opening-game opponent, while USC will navigate another brutal SEC schedule that features home games against Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas and road dates with Auburn and Florida.
Spurrier has yet to talk about his team's chances in '10. But the Head Ball Coach has said if he can't get the Gamecocks to Atlanta sometime soon, he would let another coach take a crack at it.
Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.