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December 21, 2010

Atlanta Memories are Sour

It happened. Boy, did it happen.

But it's over.

"I think we left the SEC game behind us," spur Antonio Allen said after Monday's practice. "I'm trying to be focused on Florida State and come out with a big win, tie the school record."

Nineteenth-ranked South Carolina was humbled by Auburn in the SEC Championship Game, but gets a chance to redeem itself in the same arena. The Gamecocks head to Atlanta next week to meet No. 23 Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, hoping to show the Georgia Dome a true USC representative.

What may help is the Gamecocks are switching locker rooms in Atlanta, moving to the one that Auburn used for the championship game. What should help much, much more is the players are focused on three mindsets -- shelving the Auburn game; realizing they have a chance to make more history in what's been a defining season; and also realizing that the past three years of not finishing has been a huge setback for the program.

"It wasn't really a good game the last time we went there," Byron Jerideau said after a visible wince. "Trying to have a good game. We've got to earn our respect back."

Most players have, over the past year, freely admitted that not many were really into the PapaJohns.com Bowl last year. It was a less-than bowl, in a less-than location, and many figured that they could roll over Connecticut without too much effort, even in the Arctic conditions.

That slap in the face was intensified by a long offseason, made longer every time one of them got wind of coach Steve Spurrier talking about it during the rubber-chicken circuit. Not like he could talk about the Clemson win after the game after that was so disappointing.

The players are putting the same kind of focus on the Chick-fil-A Bowl that they did on the Southern Miss game at the beginning of this season. That was the first chance to show the Gamecocks could be different after another sputtering finish.

Now they have another one.

"It's a great feeling to release that frustration out on another team," Ladi Ajiboye said last week. "It's a great opportunity to show our fans we want to play even harder for this next game."

USC has been working on it, going at each bowl practice in full pads during some interesting Columbia weather. The Gamecocks figure they'll be ready enough for some hard-fought football, often practicing in frigid, windy climates while knowing they'll be playing in a controlled environment.

Atlanta will have some of the same distractions as the other bowl locations, but USC feels it will have a much better focus. There are several players who remember the pain of each of the past two years and have been focusing those points on the younger guys.

Then there's the other. Eighteen Gamecocks are from Florida, and many grew up pulling for the opponent Seminoles.

Allen, for instance.

"My stepdad actually has a Florida State tag on his car," the junior said. "We've got to get that fixed."

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