The Gamecocks entered the season ranked in the top-10 and proved worthy of that honor by opening up 6-0. A 35-7 beat down of No. 5 Georgia on Oct. 6 allowed them to creep all the way to No. 3 in the polls, but back-to-back road losses at No. 9 LSU (23-21) and No. 3 Florida (44-11) simply proved too much to overcome.
Despite the mid-season stumble, the squad closed the regular season strong with four straight wins, including its rivalry game at No. 12 Clemson on Nov. 24, 27-17.
The Gamecocks were not selected for a BCS bowl and had to settle for a date with Michigan in the Outback Bowl, where they claimed a 33-28 win. They've now won back-to-back bowl games and have played in the postseason in seven of eight years under head coach Steve Spurrier.
OFFENSE: Despite ranking in the bottom-half of the SEC in yards per game a season ago (376.5), South Carolina was a very efficient offensive football team, putting up 31.5 ppg while scoring on greater than 80 percent of its red zone drives.
One of the biggest reasons for the Gamecocks' scoring success in 2012 was the play of quarterback Connor Shaw, who completed nearly 68 percent of his passes for 1,956 yards with 17 touchdowns to just seven interceptions to go with 435 rushing yards and three more scores on the ground. Shaw is entering his senior season and is the program's all-time leader in competition percentage (.668), but expect Dylan Thompson (1,027 yards, 10 TDs, two INTs) to receive his fair share of snaps once again.
With the departure of Marcus Lattimore (662 yards, 11 TDs), arguably the nation's best running back in recent years when healthy, the Gamecocks will have a big role to fill in the backfield. Mike Davis (275 yards on 52 carries) made the most of his limited opportunities last season and will have a chance to grab hold of the starting gig.
At receiver, Bruce Ellington returns after piecing together a solid campaign in 2012 (40 rec, 600 yards, seven TDs). His role is expected to increase even more in the absence of Ace Sanders (45 rec, 531 yards, nine TDs). Nick Jones and Damiere Byrd will occupy the other starting spots, although the duo combined for just 26 catches last year.
DEFENSE: In a league that boasts a plethora of stout defenses, South Carolina has one of the best (18.2 ppg, 315.5 ypg) and it only expects to get better in 2013 with the return of perhaps the nation's most dominant force in defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
After winning the SEC Freshman of the Year in 2011, Clowney followed that up with one of the most dominating single-seasons in school history, tallying 54 tackles, 23.5 TFL, 13.0 sacks, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Now a junior and anticipated to be a top pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Clowney is primed for his best season yet, and he is looking forward to causing havoc in the backfield once again.
"I like to pick at quarterbacks. That's what I do," Clowney said. "If they can't handle the heat, get out of the kitchen. You can tell if a player is scared if he looks at me every time before the ball is snapped."
The unit is far from a one-man operation, however. Brison Williams (52 tackles, two INTs) brings a veteran presence to the secondary, and Kelcy Quarles (eight TFL, 3.5 sacks) provides penetration from the inside.
The defense as a whole will need several inexperienced players to step up this season, as only four starters return.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Tyler Hull is back as the starting punter after averaging 39.4 yards per boot. With Adam Yates (11-of-17 on field goal attempts) graduated, sophomore Landon Ard will take over kicking duties.
Ellington was the team's top kick returner last season with 406 yards on 18 run backs. He might also get some looks as a punt returner in place of the dynamic Sanders (28 returns, 429 yards, two TDs).
OUTLOOK: South Carolina has been consistently outstanding over the past two seasons, racking up just two more losses in that time frame than back-to-back BCS National Champion Alabama, but in the SEC, being great isn't nearly enough. Spurrier knows that to get over the hump, his team has to be almost perfect.
"Our goal is to win the SEC," Spurrier said. "We've never done it in school history. We're going to try our best to see if we can maybe win that one game or so we've been losing in the last couple of years and try to get to the championship game and try to win it."
It appears that the SEC East will be a three-horse race between South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, and with Clowney back, the Gamecocks may be the favorite. They undoubtedly have their matchups with the Bulldogs (Sept. 7) and the Gators (Nov. 16) circled on the calendar. If they can win both of those matchups, a trip to the SEC Championship Game and a BCS at-large bid will be likely. Even if they lose one or both of those contests, they can still count on a nine- or 10-win season and another high-profile bowl berth.