Columbia, S.C. South Carolina got to do something Saturday it hadn't in four years - practice in December.
The Gamecocks (7-4) opened workouts for their first bowl game since the Outback Bowl after the 2001 season, going through two mostly sharp practices to prepare for their Independence Bowl matchup with Missouri on Dec. 30.
"This is great," safety Ko Simpson said. "Got to get your legs back and get in the flow, but it feels great to be out here."
Only a handful of Gamecocks were around four years ago when Lou Holtz took them to their second straight bowl victory over Ohio State. The team had just completed the best two-year stretch in school history, going 17-7, and future bowls seemed a guarantee rather than a question.
But South Carolina stumbled short of the postseason the next two seasons. It appeared to break its bowl futility last season at 6-5 - with a trip to the Independence Bowl likely a year ago - but lost its chance as penalty for its brawl with Clemson. The Tigers, also 6-5, forfeited their bowl opportunity as well.
Simpson, named to the third-team AP All-America list earlier this week, remembered the despondency of last December, watching friends on other teams playing and knowing the Gamecocks let their bowl slip through their hands in a flurry of fists.
Since the season ended, Simpson says he and his teammates were excited that this time they could join college football's holiday party.
"We're all going to be ready," he said.
So far, so good, according to South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier.
He said his players looked crisp despite the time away from the practice field. A big reason for that could be the newness of bowl practice, Spurrier said.
"It's something different practicing in December, not many of them have done that," Spurrier said. "But hopefully this'll be something common, little time off, come back in a couple of weeks and hopefully try and play our best game of the year in the bowl game."
The bowl appearance could be the only one for two key members of the Gamecocks secondary. Simpson and cornerback Johnathan Joseph are exploring their NFL prospects. Simpson, a sophomore in his third year with the team, says he hasn't made a decision yet about 2006.
Spurrier said he would concentrate on the bowl game and worry about potential departures after that. That also was the attitude of the Gamecock players, receiver Sidney Rice said.
"Everybody wants to come out here and give it their all," he says, "and do whatever it takes to win this game."
South Carolina will be eager to put its last game behind. The Gamecocks had won five Southeastern Conference games, including landmark victories over Tennessee and Florida, and were ranked in the top 25 coming into the season finale with Clemson.
In the end, though, the Tigers walked out of Williams-Brice Stadium with a 13-9 victory and knocked the Gamecocks from the national rankings.
If there was any rust or disappointment, it didn't show, Spurrier said.
"It wasn't too bad, not too bad," the coach said.
Blake Mitchell looked good at quarterback, as did backup Antonio Heffner, Spurrier said. The team will practice until Wednesday. Coaches and players will get a few days off for Christmas, then reassemble Dec. 26 and, after one more morning workout, will leave for Shreveport, La., to continue getting ready for Missouri.
Spurrier says he's as excited as his players about a bowl game his first year as Gamecocks coach.
"Obviously, if we win, I think we'll have a shot at the top 25," Spurrier said. "So that's a lot to play for."