ATLANTA -- In a season of redemption for himself and his team, Stephen Garcia wants to take another step.
"I came in with these guys, most of them," South Carolina's quarterback said after practice on Tuesday. "Last year, that was just a tough way to end the season, after we beat Clemson the way we did. We just had a lot of hype going in. To come out flat as we did and play that bad, it was tough to accept."
As bad as the Gamecocks felt after the disastrous Papajohns.com Bowl last year, they found a slight pick-me-up in Garcia's reaction. Long questioned about his ability to lead, by his coach and his fan base, Garcia sat at the post-game table covering his eyes and speaking in a trembling voice.
"It's really tough answering questions right now," Garcia stumbled then. "Really tough. I think it's pretty obvious, the way I'm answering these questions."
The loss, where Garcia was a decent 16-of-38 for 129 yards with one interception, followed a horrid showing at the previous year's Outback Bowl. Hyped all week as Garcia's return to his Tampa hometown, and handed the keys to the offense immediately after the Clemson loss more than a month before, Garcia hit the field and was awful.
He was 9-of-18 for 79 yards and three interceptions, getting yanked at halftime in favor of Chris Smelley. Added to the Papajohns, Garcia has never thrown a bowl-game touchdown and is four interceptions in the hole.
It's his show, completely and totally, this season and Garcia seemed to realize that no matter how good Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery were around him, he has to be the one to lead. Following an offseason of often ridiculously heavy public criticism from his coach, Garcia had a wonderful season.
He has completed 205 of 315 passes (65.1 percent) for 2,816 yards and 20 touchdowns, with 11 interceptions. The stats were good, but his headiness under center was better -- Garcia hardly ever regressed to his previous ways of seeming nervous and unsure, making quick and correct decisions when the Gamecocks needed him to.
Garcia was never terrible and often fantastic (the Alabama game comes to mind), a few bad series or quarters always trumped by an overall solid game. Even Steve Spurrier had to smile and credit Garcia for his season.
But there's one game to go.
"Hopefully I play a lot better," Garcia said. "I think I will. I need to play a lot better, a lot smarter, than I did the last two games. But I think I'm a little bit more mature than I was the last two and even earlier this year. I think I'll be ready for it."
USC (9-4) and Garcia have had similar seasons, shucking often mediocre pasts to accomplish several firsts in 2010. Still left is a bowl win, which would be the Gamecocks' second under Steve Spurrier and fifth in school history.
It would also equal the only other team among the program that got to 10 wins. Garcia knew about it, as did Spurrier, and wanted to hit that plateau.
"We did reach some stuff this year," Spurrier said. "Beating Clemson back-to-back years, beating Alabama, we've had some great games this year. This team has played extremely well, I think we've maximized the talent. It's been a very good year for us thus far, so hopefully we can finish it with a win."
Garcia would like that, if nothing else to add another missing piece to his personal resume.
"We're going to have a lot different attitude and play a lot better," Garcia said. "I just think the attitude of the team is maybe a little bit different. We're a lot more focused and a lot more serious and we got a chance to do something here that's only been done once before and that's win 10 games. That's a pretty big goal we're looking for."
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