With final exams over, South Carolina formally begins bowl practice this afternoon. Workouts continue through Dec. 22 when a three-day Christmas break begins. The Gamecocks depart for Orlando and the Capital One Bowl matchup with Wisconsin on Dec. 26 at Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium. Here are 10 things we know right now:
1. USC’s run defense can’t have a hangover on New Year’s Day: Wisconsin lines up and simply physically challenges a defense to stop its powerful running game, the bread-and-butter of its prototypical Big Ten-style offense. Just four of USC’s 12 opponents this season ran the ball more than 40 times. In the final two games, Coastal Carolina had 27 rushing attempts and Clemson had 29. Wisconsin averaged 42.8 rushing attempts per game this season (514 in 12 games), almost eight carries per game more than USC faced this season (35.1). So, the Gamecocks must tighten their chinstraps and prepare for a physical battle in the trenches on New Year’s Day.
2. USC’s defensive line and secondary will both look vastly different in 2014: The decision by Ahmad Christian to transfer to a school closer to his Jacksonville, Fla., home virtually guarantees that USC will lose its top three players along the defensive line and in the secondary. We knew defensive linemen Jadeveon Clowney (declaring for NFL Draft), Kelcy Quarles (declaring for NFL Draft) and Chaz Sutton (senior) were departing, putting Darius English, Gerald Dixon, Mason Harris, Phillip Dukes, Gerald Dixon, Jr., Kelsey Griffin and Deon Green under the microscope starting in the spring. In the secondary, we know Victor Hampton, Jimmy Legree and Christian are leaving, so Rico McWilliams, Ali Groves and Ronnie Martin, among others, are on the clock starting Jan. 2.
3. Your season is defined by your bowl game: Throughout his 30-year college coaching career, Steve Spurrier has learned that fans and boosters always remember one game - the last one. Thus, even though the Gamecocks are guaranteed a third straight 10-win season, the emotions of the off-season will be determined by how they fare in the bowl game against Wisconsin. There is a huge difference between 11-2 and 10-3 in the eyes of fans and the media. So, winning the bowl game is essential for a smoothly flowing off-season and spring practice.
4. USC will be stacked at running back in 2014: Wisconsin has perhaps the best 1-2 combination at running back in the country this season with Melvin Gordon (1,466 rushing yards) and James White (1,337) sharing the ball. Next season, USC could claim that honor with perhaps the deepest running back corps in school history - Mike Davis (1,112 years and 10 rushing TDs in 2013), Brandon Wilds, Shon Carson, David Williams and Jamari Smith. Except for Williams (redshirted this season), all of them have a 100-yard rushing game on their resumes. Running back could be the deepest position on the team in 2014. It will be interesting to see how running backs coach Everette Sands divides the carries during spring practice
5. College football’s bowl selection process is ridiculously unfair, part (pick any number between two and a billion): The BCS’ tremendously unpopular two team per conference limit, geography and the willingness to placate the smaller, less significant conferences all factored into this year’s BCS selections. The No. 8 (Missouri), No. 9 (USC) and No. 10 (Oregon) ranked teams in the BCS standings are all playing in non-BCS bowls, while the No. 11 (Oklahoma), No. 12 (Clemson) and No. 15 (Central Florida) teams compete in the BCS. Unfair? Yes. But not surprising. Spurrier has repeatedly said college football is unfair since human voters and computers determine often determine which teams play for the championship and which teams don’t. Hopefully, the new four-team playoff and team selection committee will halt such foolishness, but it could be impossible to eradicate all politics from the equation.
6. Jadeveon Clowney will be missed: I’ve never worked for Rolling Stone magazine, but after writing about Clowney for the past three seasons, I now appreciate what it’s like to cover a rock star on a daily basis. He’s been in the spotlight since the day he announced his commitment to USC on Feb. 14, 2011. Of course, everything blew up after “The Hit” in the Outback Bowl and no college football player except for Johnny Manziel got more coverage in 2013. But he’s also a great player (something that’s forgotten in the hysteria), so he will be missed. His replacement has enormous shoes to fill.
7. Mike Davis should be a Heisman Trophy candidate in 2014: The Heisman Trophy is basically reserved for quarterbacks and running backs, and when you’re one of the top five rushers in the SEC as a sophomore, you enter the following season with high expectations. With nationally televised contests against Texas A&M (Aug. 28) and Georgia (Sept. 13) in the first three weeks of the season, Davis has an opportunity to make a favorable early impression. A couple of long touchdown runs like those he had against North Carolina and UCF will surely benefit the cause.
8. USC is very balanced offensively: The mistaken perception of Spurrier is that he wants to throw the ball on every down. But he understands the importance of running the football. Spurrier has continuously preached the importance of staying balanced offensively and the Gamecocks have achieved that goal in 2013. During the regular season, USC ran the ball 58.5 percent of the time (503 rushes in 860 plays; just 11 fewer rushes than Wisconsin), and averaged 205.2 yards per game (2,463 rushing yards) on the ground compared to 248.2 yards (2,979 passing yards) through the air. Being unpredictable on offense has helped the Gamecocks convert 43.9 percent (75-of-171) of third down opportunities. A healthy, mobile Connor Shaw helps.
9. Kelcy Quarles’ stock is rising: Concerning the NFL, has any Gamecock player boosted his stock more than Quarles this season? Probably not. Taking advantage of the double- and triple-team attention Clowney attracted, Quarles has 13.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks this season. His performance in the second half of the season has been exemplary. Obviously, somebody was paying attention since Quarles was named first-team All-America by Sporting News and first-team All-SEC by both the Associated Press and the league’s 14 coaches. At this point, Quarles should be off the board by the end of the second day (Rounds 1-3) of the NFL Draft.
10. Wisconsin’s running backs rarely fumble the football: Considering Wisconsin has rushed the ball 514 times this season, one of the most remarkable statistics of the 2013 season might be the fact the Badgers have lost just three fumbles in 12 games, tying with Notre Dame for fewest in the nation. Amazingly, Wisconsin has lost only three of 17 fumbles, so the Badgers are always alert to fall on loose footballs. So, not only do Gordon (8.1 yards per rush) and White (6.4 yards per rush) combine for 233.6 yards per game on the ground, they rarely lose their grip on the football. Twelve of Wisconsin’s 15 turnovers this season are interceptions.