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December 9, 2010The piles of shed jerseys and torn-off tape were as crumpled as the faces of the men standing around them.
South Carolina's locker room after the SEC Championship Game was, as expected, virtually silent. Some hurried to get dressed and leave, as if they could also shed the memory of what had just happened, while others stared into their lockers.
Despite the 56-17 stomping that had been freshly seared into their minds, some managed to speak. Some words were about what had transpired across the corridor at the Georgia Dome, most were about what the team could do about it.
About that game, nothing. About the future, everything.
"We got exams coming up, get our mind off football a little bit, then come back ready to work for the bowl game," junior Akeem Auguste said. "Hopefully we ain't nowhere cold this year."
Auguste got his wish, with the No. 19 Gamecocks (9-4) heading back to the Georgia Dome for a Chick-fil-A Bowl matchup with No. 23 Florida State. Now to fix the other.
"It's hard to swallow," sophomore DeVonte Holloman said. "We had a good season, still got a bowl game, still got a chance to win 10 games this year."
USC has been off this week and should remain off the practice field for most of next week, finishing exams and having some players march during graduation ceremonies. After that comes a return to Bluff Road while the campus empties (tentative date of the first bowl practice is Dec. 16), and filling the days until a short Christmas break and the trip to Atlanta.
The Gamecocks are scheduled to practice the afternoon of Dec. 26 on the campus of Georgia State, the first on-location bowl practice and a signal that they need to already be mentally ready to play. Until then is about realizing the 2010 season has not been about the last game, but about the journey before it, and how it still has a chance to be one of the greatest in school history.
Only one group of Gamecocks (1984) won 10 games in a single season, but the number came with a few bittersweet moments. One, USC didn't win a conference title (not that there was one to win, considering the Gamecocks were independent). Two, they were denied a berth in the national championship game due to a shocking loss at Navy. Three, they couldn't win their bowl game.
The year was magnificent, true, but all USC ultimately had to show for it was a rivalry win over Clemson.
This year's Gamecocks didn't win a conference title, but won a division title. They whipped Clemson 29-7, accomplishing something that had not been done at USC in 40 years in the process. Now they have a chance to tie the 1984 team in single-season wins, and to do it by winning something that team didn't -- their bowl game.
Planning for Florida State's tendencies -- especially if drop-back passer Christian Ponder is cleared to play -- will be part of the preparation, but much will also be flushing what happened in Atlanta the first time. One of the team's four captains, Spencer Lanning, said as much.
"We got some time off, so I think we'll spend a lot of time looking within ourselves and seeing what this team means to us," Lanning said. "Our family, as a team, is strong. This takes a lot of life out of us for sure, seeing how we came into this game thinking we were ready to play. But we'll see what happens, whatever bowl we're blessed to go to."
Coach Steve Spurrier has always said that every game has a 24-hour policy afterward, either one day to celebrate or one day to mourn. Then it was onto the next one.
It's a good plan, but before, there was always a week of practice to get back into, not a couple of weeks of downtime. While cramming for finals may have taken the place of practice, one has to wonder how many stray thoughts have flashed back to the last game.
It should be painful, but allowing the pain to sidetrack the next game can be avoided. The Gamecocks' mission for the Chick-fil-A Bowl isn't just about X's and O's when planning for the Seminoles.
"Obviously, we know Auburn was a little bit more prepared," fifth-year senior Hutch Eckerson said. "We thought we had a little bit more going into this game, but we really have to focus on ourselves and our team and get ready for the bowl game. But this one hurts, for sure."