ATLANTA -- South Carolina's pair of trips here in December didn't work out so well.

A lopsided loss to Auburn in the SEC title game began the month. A painful loss to Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Bowl ended it -- and the season.

The bowl game, in short: South Carolina lost Marcus Lattimore to an injury, lost its way, found itself a bit -- but ultimately didn't have enough to stop FSU in the Seminoles' 26-17 victory.

The Gamecocks were 9-3 and full of hope entering that first Georgia Dome experience on Dec. 4. They left the same building Friday night with the same dissatisfaction -- and a 9-5 record.

"Playing the last two games of the season, to come out and perform like that, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth," said South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia, who threw three interceptions but did play a decent second half.

There were plenty of questions going into this bowl season about how the Gamecocks would appear, given their poor showings in the past two bowl games.

South Carolina looked temporarily stunned by the loss of Lattimore, but it eventually did enough good things, on both sides of the ball, to make the bowl game a ballgame. At no point could you say that about the Papajohns.com and Outback bowls.

"We were ready to play," said safety Akeem Auguste.

Perhaps it would have been a different game if USC had Lattimore, who suffered a mild concussion and a severe cut inside his mouth when FSU cornerback Greg Reid popped him early on. The hit knocked Lattimore out of the game, and it resulted in Lattimore's first fumble in 278 touches this season.

Later, receiver Alshon Jeffery also had a rare fumble.

"It's hard to beat a team when you turn the ball over five times," Garcia said.

Lattimore went to the hospital, where the cut was stitched to stop the bleeding. He was released shortly after midnight, beginning the new year in the hospital.

USC eventually settled down after Lattimore's injury, getting production from senior Brian Maddox (53 yards) and sophomore Kenny Miles (70 yards).

The Gamecocks had the yardage edge much of the night, especially after FSU senior QB Christian Ponder was lost because of a concussion. USC outgained FSU 414-308, but the turnovers clearly loomed large.

"We actually moved the ball fairly decent," Spurrier said. "We made 400 yards -- 400 yards; we don't usually make that many. It wasn't a terrible offensive performance."

Garcia caught a touchdown from freshman receiver Ace Sanders on a trick play, and Maddox had a 7-yard TD to cut the Seminoles' lead to 19-17 with about 12 minutes to go.

Florida State responded with a 13-play, 66-yard drive that consumed more than half of the time remaining.

Even if the 2010 season didn't end all that well for USC, you cannot question the program took strides, and some rather large ones. USC defeated Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Florida and Clemson in the same season, reaching the SEC title game for the first time.

Spurrier was asked this past week if the Gamecocks had in fact turned that metaphorical corner, at long last.

"Oh, you never reach where you're trying to go," he said. "We're not any big, dominant team right now. I'd love to have about six guys make preseason All-SEC before the season starts some year. They'd say, 'Them guys are loaded over there at South Carolina.' But that hasn't happened yet.

"We're still in the process of building, recruiting and trying to put a really, really strong team out there."

The Gamecocks immediately transition into the next phase of that: recruiting.

With a month until Signing Day, there are several large fish still undecided. The nation's No. 1 prospect, Rock Hill's Jadeveon Clowney, has been considered a South Carolina lean for some time. But there's no guarantee the Gamecocks will get the 6-7 defensive end, thought to be every bit the defensive game-changer that Lattimore was for the offense.

Several other in-state prospects, friends of Clowney's such as Marlboro linebacker Lateek Townsend and Manning defensive lineman Phillip Dukes, are waiting to see where Clowney goes. They're expected to follow.

"The state of the program? I'll let you know after February the second," Spurrier said. "It'll either be a super signing class, or a so-so (one). There's a lot of guys out there that we think can help us next year."