From No. 6 to 6-6. You'd have a difficult time finding a more precipitous fall in college football this year than South Carolina's.

Alabama's was almost as sharp. The Tide dropped its final four, including a stunner to Louisiana-Monroe. But Bama's bowling in the Independence.

Cal's was close, too. The Bears lost six of seven after beginning the year 5-0 and being ranked second in the country. But Cal is in the Armed Forces Bowl against Air Force.

Ironically, or perhaps not, the 6-6 Gamecocks were most rumored to be going to the Independence or Armed Forces bowls.

Instead, USC will spend its holidays at home, wondering what in the heck happened to a season that started with such promise.

"I'm so lost on where we went wrong," senior running back Cory Boyd said. "At one point, we were at our best. Seemed like nothing could go wrong. I don't know which way it turned.

"If you look back at it, we definitely had some good things that we did. And we had some terrible things that we did. You can't point fingers at nobody but ourselves."

At 6-1 after the Oct. 13 victory at North Carolina, no one considered the fact that South Carolina might not win again.

Then came the upset at home by Vanderbilt. And then came four more losses: at Tennessee in overtime, at Arkansas, against Florida and against Clemson on a last-second field goal.

Flip any one of those results around and South Carolina is playing in a bowl, trying to equal the accomplishments of a year ago. Now, the Gamecocks are attempting to rationalize with the program's direction and stay positive about the future.

Here are six things that went awry in USC's plummet from No. 6 to 6-6.

1. The offensive line.

This seems like an appropriate place to start. It was the biggest problem all year in terms of consistency and continuity.

When the line protected the passer, it didn't open holes in the running game. When it gave Boyd and Mike Davis room to run, it turned the quarterback into a helpless target.

The Gamecocks were constantly shuffling players through the guard spots, finally settling on Gurminder Thind and Heath Batchelor as their sixth different guard combo. The tackles weren't all that impressive, either, but there weren't other options behind Justin Sorensen and Jamon Meredith.

USC can only hope that Garrett Anderson and the like improve greatly and Kyle Nunn and Quintin Richardson, both of whom redshirted, will be impact freshmen.

The ragged group was most responsible for the Vanderbilt loss (five false starts, seven sacks allowed). The line isn't coming together until the season's latter half every year under Spurrier. As a result, John Hunt's job coaching the position might be in danger.

2. The defensive injuries.

Injuries aren't an excuse, coaches and players say, but who in their right mind would say USC should play just as well without linebacker Jasper Brinkley?

He was the defense's heart and soul, the proven playmaker above any other on the field. He says he's coming back for another senior year, great news for the 2008 Gamecocks, but that can't save what just happened.

It was obvious that USC would miss him most against Arkansas and Florida. But no one - no one - could've projected the kind of carnage that Darren McFadden and Tim Tebow would leave behind on their way to the Heisman ceremony.

Losing tackle Nathan Pepper hurt USC's ability to stop the run up front. All-SEC corner Captain Munnerlyn missing the final two games was a huge loss. Ask Clemson's Aaron Kelly, who took advantage time and again of freshman Addison Williams on the Tigers' game-winning drive.

3. The quarterback quandary.

The position seemed settled during the summer. Then Blake Mitchell skipped one too many classes and got things off the track entering the year.

Spurrier, typically antsy about the position, played his part by keeping Mitchell and Chris Smelley (and even Tommy Beecher, to some degree) on puppet strings.

It was never more obvious than the Vanderbilt loss, when Smelley clearly pressed with Mitchell waiting in the wings.

The fifth-year senior Mitchell probably should've been the choice to start at Tennessee, but Spurrier went with Smelley, who struggled until Mitchell relieved him in the second half. A comeback effort fell short.

Illustrating Spurrier's consternation with the position, he said Sunday that maybe he should've stuck with Smelley and not Mitchell, even though the team had far more problems down the stretch than its QB.

4. The stench of a rotten loss.

Spurrier attacked the team's effort level after the 17-6 loss to Vanderbilt, and rightfully so. The USC offense was in the middle of the crosshairs after an abysmal day against a good, but not unconquerable defense.

Later in the year, Tennessee was down 15 points to Vandy entering the fourth quarter, but still found a way to win. South Carolina never threatened the Commodores.

Days after the loss, Spurrier started to mention his theme of saying "this isn't the best team we're going to have around here" and pointing an eye toward 2008. But there were four games remaining, four chances for a seventh win. Did he lose the team at that point?

5. The less-than-special special teams.

Spurrier was on this unit from the opening game and through the end.

The breakdowns varied throughout the year. At one point, Spurrier said he'd employ more starters on special teams - just to bump up the energy level. It helped, but only marginally.

The return game seemed to improve slightly, with Munnerlyn and Chris Culliver. The punt team was dreadful by the end, missing key blocks. Ryan Succop failed to get the ball away in a timely manner a couple of times. There were three blocked punts in the final two games.

Some changes in coaching responsibilities might also be afoot in this area.

6. The waiting game for impact freshman.

If you'd said in August that Culliver would finish the year with zero catches, you'd have received a hearty laugh. But Culliver just never came along, as Spurrier had hoped throughout the summer.

Of all people, it wound up being Dion Lecorn to emerge at receiver. The same Lecorn who was destined for a redshirt even in late September. He came around in early November, providing a huge help in the offensive gameplan.

The fact is, Spurrier assumed more freshmen would provide bigger impacts.

In addition to Culliver's lack of production, Jason Barnes' redshirting seemed like a long shot. So did Matt Clements' as the season began.

Ladi Ajiboye was fantastic at times at tackle, but Travian Robertson and Clifton Geathers showed they needed a year of seasoning.

So did Cliff Matthews, who was forced to learn on the fly at weak-side linebacker. Williams' playing time at corner will help down the road.

The good news there, and the hope for the future, is that they're freshmen. And, as Spurrier has said, the Gamecocks "should have a stronger team next year."

Reach Travis Haney at thaney@postandcourier.com.

Gene Sapakoff