ATLANTA -- In a departure from what was perhaps expected, South Carolina has been forced to defend itself nearly as much as it has other teams this season.
The questions for the USC defense have been regular and recurring throughout the season: What's wrong with the secondary? What's going on with the pass defense? How can it be repaired? Can it be repaired?
So far, through 13 games, a variety of mysteries have gone unsolved. The Gamecocks have given up an average of 253.6 passing yards a game, including five 300-yard games.
Only 13 teams in the country have been worse, statistically. And nothing was worse this season than Cam Newton and Auburn torching South Carolina for 335 passing yards in the SEC title game romp against the Gamecocks.
"Certainly no one likes the way we performed the last time out," said USC strong safeties and spurs coach Shane Beamer. "We've certainly had some down moments this year."
But there's hope in the form of one final chance at redemption, Friday against 9-4 Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Bowl inside the Georgia Dome.
Don't misunderstand. This hasn't been a completely lost year for the defense, and the secondary in particular. South Carolina covered very well against Alabama, leading to seven sacks of Greg McElroy in that big upset victory.
Additionally, pick sixes, by Stephon Gilmore and Devin Taylor, were vital in the wins against Furman and Tennessee.
The problem for the Gamecocks throughout the year has been getting beaten deep, whether it was caused by a breakdown in the secondary or a missed blitz assignment -- or anything else.
The team tries to avoid giving up what it calls "explosive plays" -- runs of 12 or more yards and passes of more than 18 yards.
But offensive explosions were a semi-regular occurrence for opposing teams. Auburn could put together a pretty lengthy highlight video of them from its two wins against the Gamecocks.
"It would be one thing if teams were hitting 10-, 10-, 10-yard plays on us," Beamer said, "but they're hitting 60-, 70-yard plays on us."
Friday's game will be a matter of limiting, or eliminating, Florida State's "explosive plays." But, as you'd expect from FSU, the Seminoles do have explosive players.
Between Bert Reed (56 catches, 589 yards, two touchdowns), Willie Haulstead (36 catches, 573 yards, six touchdowns) and Taiwan Easterling (41 catches, 541 yards, four touchdowns), the Noles have enough threats to give the Gamecocks fits.
"They've got speed," Ward said. "They've got little guys that can catch it and turn it into a 60-yard play, and they've got big guys they can throw it down the field to. They're a pretty complete team."
Florida State also figures to have a healthy Christian Ponder. The senior quarterback has been plagued most of the season by elbow issues, but those appear to be behind him. He's practiced this week for the first time in a month, and FSU coach Jimbo Fisher all but guaranteed that Ponder would be his starter for Friday's game.
Flaws in South Carolina's alignment has been a culprit in a lot of the passing defense's issues. If one player is out of position, it can really make the entire 11-man unit vulnerable.
"Every time we line up right, and we've got a good idea of what we're doing defensively, we don't have many mistakes," said DeVonte Holloman, who has been playing both safety spots the second half of the season. "We've had a lot of mistakes, but we feel like we've corrected them."
Even so, if you'd told Holloman in August that the Gamecocks would hover around 100th in the country in passing D, he would have informed you that you were nuts.
"I wouldn't have believed it," Holloman said, adding that being in the secondary is always about a shot at redemption. "Playing defensive back, you've got to have thick skin. There are times you make plays, and there are times when you do mess up. We've made good plays and we've made bad plays. We need more good plays."