COLUMBIA -- Marcus Lattimore watched in horror from a family living room. Though a month away from officially committing to play football at South Carolina and still a Byrnes High School senior, his heart was garnet -- and stressed -- as he saw the Gamecocks stumble through a 20-7 Papajohns. com Bowl loss to underdog Connecticut last January in icy Birmingham, Ala. "It was awful," Lattimore recalled during a break in preparations for Chick-fil-A Bowl game against Florida State. "We can't let that happen again."

The kid doesn't need a business card; reputation precedes the 6-foot, 218-pound tailback into the limelight and into open field.

Gamecocks game-changer.

National freshman of the year.

All-SEC first team.

A solid 2011 Heisman Trophy candidate.

Yeah, all that and add another Marcus Lattimore plus: Team leader.

Everyone in the program knows he has been productive and vocal beyond his years since summer workouts. But with a full regular season and SEC championship game in the rearview mirror, Lattimore celebrates the holidays with a new kind of spirit.

Or let's just say you do not want that Marcus stare if you are a Gamecock not trying real hard in late December.

'We'll be ready'

A scrappy Connecticut bunch held listless South Carolina to 205 total yards. Unimaginative play-calling didn't help. The Gamecocks failed to score until there were 3:24 remaining and the Legion Field stands were almost empty.

"It was just lack of focus, I think," Lattimore said. "We're going to be focused this year. They couldn't do anything last year. We'll be ready for Florida State."

Lattimore seems beyond zeroed in. More like mad, upset with his subpar performances in South Carolina's last two games.

Averaging 99.8 yards per game with 19 total touchdowns, Lattimore did not score or break the 100-yard mark in a 29-7 victory at Clemson (23 carries, 48 yards) or a 56-17 loss to Auburn in the SEC title game.

Lattimore ran for 84 yards on 16 carries in Atlanta, but the last 22 yards came after Auburn took a 42-14 lead in the third quarter. Lattimore didn't touch the ball in the fourth quarter.

Children nervously waiting for report cards appreciate a 99.8 average. But you know 99.8 is burning inside Lattimore.

An 0-0 record

Improving Florida State presents a red cape type of challenge for New Year's Eve.

The Gamecocks' Chick-fil-A Bowl opponent is fifth in the ACC in scoring defense (19.8 points per game; Clemson was first at 17.8).

But the Seminoles finished strong, with a 31-7 victory over Florida.

Typical of Florida State's bend-but-win resume: Clemson's Jamie Harper rushed for a career-high 126 yards in Tallahassee the same night South Carolina won the SEC East title in Gainesville, but the Tigers lost, 16-13.

The theory goes that these 2010 Gamecocks go about as far as Lattimore takes them.

He knows the South Carolina roster is heavy with players who are 0-2 in bowl games. Lattimore, 0-0, wants to tweak the culture one more time before the year ends.

"We've got to go out with a bang," he said with a stare colder than Birmingham.