BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Connecticut tailback Andre Dixon needed only to walk through the mall connected to the team's hotel to realize the Huskies have landed in the heart of SEC country for Saturday's Papajohns.com Bowl.
Dixon was window shopping when he noticed a lot of red around him - crimson, to be exact.
"You see SEC fans everywhere, Alabama people everywhere," Dixon said.
Dixon was speaking at a bowl news conference in a downtown hotel located across the street from the SEC offices. South Carolina fans are expected to out-number UConn's by at least 2-to-1 in Legion Field.
But players from UConn, which was not a full-fledged FBS school until 2002, say they look forward to seeing how they stack up against a member of the country's ruling-class conference.
The Big East is 3-0 in the Papajohns.com Bowl, although this is the first year the conference has faced an SEC school. Meanwhile, Alabama will try to win the SEC's third consecutive national title when the Crimson Tide face Texas on Thursday.
"Especially with (Alabama) winning, they're going to stress the SEC is a better conference and the Big East don't stand a chance against an SEC team," Dixon said. "But it's football. You've got to go out there and play the game."
UConn is 0-2 all time against SEC opponents, losing road games to Kentucky in 1999 and to Vanderbilt in 2002. The Huskies have a home-and-home series scheduled with Vandy beginning next season and will meet Tennessee in 2015 and '16.
USC coach Steve Spurrier said he does not get caught up in comparing conferences.
"All I know is we've got the biggest ballparks and the most fans. And some years maybe our teams are a little stronger, some years maybe they're not," Spurrier said.
"I think what separates the SEC is so many players are invited to the NFL combine and more are drafted from the SEC every year than the other conferences. So that probably speaks to the quality of players."
Former Houston quarterback Andre Ware, who will serve as the color analyst on the ESPN broadcast Saturday, said SEC schools have superior speed on defense.
"I think the (speed) gap's been closed somewhat offensively, but I think there's still a great deal of difference in speed on the defensive side," said Ware, who called SEC games this season. "For every Ndamukong Suh at Nebraska, you might have five of those guys that you'll find in the SEC. So the difference is still significant."
Spurrier has praised the Huskies' physical play along both lines and said the Gamecocks need to match that toughness to win the line of scrimmage.
UConn coach Randy Edsall said the Big East's northeastern base dictates the type of offense many of the schools run.
"The weather conditions that we play in, it's not going to be conducive in late-November and December to sit there and try to throw the ball 40 times a game," Edsall said.
But Gamecocks assistant head coach for defense Ellis Johnson said it is inaccurate to paint the Big East as simply a bruising, smash-mouth conference, noting the differences between West Virginia's spread offense and UConn's multiple attack.
While Johnson believes the SEC is the nation's top conference, he said bowls can be a crapshoot.
"When you get in a bowl game and you've got two or three weeks to prepare, you don't have to beat somebody 10 out of 12 times. You've got to beat them that day," Johnson said.
The SEC is 2-0 against the Big East this season (on Sept. 19, Auburn beat West Virginia 41-30, and Kentucky defeated Louisville 31-27) and has the nation's best nonconference record at 42-6. The Big East is second at 32-8.
UConn quarterback Zach Frazer said the Huskies, who have been four-point underdogs since the betting line opened, relish the role of spoiler.
"I feel like everyone kind of looks at us like, 'Oh, Big East.' They probably just don't know about Big East football, which is understandable," Frazer said. "But hopefully we'll put 'em on the map after this game."
VIDEO: The USC-UConn matchups