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Rivalry game may not alter USC’s bowl

The Outback Bowl Web site features an interactive poll that allows fans to vote for the teams they would like to see in Tampa, Fla., on New Year’s Day.

And while Outback president Jim McVay did not reveal the specific results, the Gamecocks apparently have been getting a lot of hits.

“There’s an awful lot of people that would like to see South Carolina there,” McVay said.

There is increasing speculation that McVay is among them.

Bowl and SEC insiders said Sunday that they expect the Gamecocks (7-4, 4-4 SEC) to receive an invitation to the Outback regardless of how USC fares Saturday at Clemson.

The only hitch could be if Florida or Alabama, who will meet in the SEC championship game, loses this weekend and the conference fails to put both teams in BCS bowl games. No. 1 Alabama is at home against Auburn, while No. 2 Florida travels to 23rd-ranked Florida State.

In such a scenario, the loser of the SEC title game likely would go to the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, bumping Georgia into the mix for the Outback, which has the first pick among the remaining SEC East schools.

Bowl sources do not believe LSU’s loss to Mississippi will affect the Gamecocks’ chances at the Outback, predicting Outback officials will stick with an Eastern Division team to pair against a Big Ten school (likely Michigan State unless Ohio State receives a BCS bid) at Raymond James Stadium.

McVay is familiar with USC coach Steve Spurrier, having worked with him with the USFL’s Tampa Bay Bandits. Outback officials also have a history with the Gamecocks, who had strong followings in Tampa when they beat Ohio State in consecutive Outback appearances following the 2000 and ’01 seasons.

But McVay was cautious when discussing possible matchups for his bowl, saying LSU (7-4, 3-4), Vanderbilt (6-5, 4-4), Kentucky (6-5, 2-5) and Ole Miss (7-4, 4-3) also were being considered from the SEC.

“Here’s the core of our thoughts with the Gamecocks: We feel very strongly about them,” McVay said. “We like the team. We like everything around the football team, the coaching staff and how they prepare. The wins, and the passions of the fans. There’s a real good feeling around South Carolina.”

People familiar with the SEC’s bowl process believe the Gamecocks are a lock for Tampa if they beat Clemson to get to eight wins. But USC may not be out of the running with a loss to its instate rival.

Perhaps more than any of the SEC’s bowl partners, the Outback has shown a willingness to deviate from conference standings, taking a seven-win Kentucky team over eight-win Georgia in 1999 — even after the Wildcats were blown out by Tennessee 59-21 in the regular-season finale.

If the Outback passes on the Gamecocks, the Chick-fil-A could select them with the next pick from the SEC. Chick-fil-A president Gary Stokan said end-of-season momentum is a big factor when evaluating teams.

“You’d like a team that wins its games coming into your bowl, particularly if it’s against its arch-rival, for the fan base to be excited,” Stokan said. “You’d like a team that’s ranked, peaking and playing some of its best football.”

USC athletics director Eric Hyman said it’s nice the Gamecocks are in the middle of these discussions this year. USC was eligible for a bowl last year at 6-6, but was passed over for the SEC’s final slot in the Independence in favor of an Alabama team with the same record.

“It’s a great position to be in to have options, to have choices. A lot of people are looking at you sincerely, as opposed to last year where it was very difficult,” Hyman said. “We were hanging on for an opportunity last year, where we’re positioned well this year.”

The State’s Bowl Projections

(for BCS bowls and those with ACC/SEC tie-ins)

BCS national championship: Florida vs. Oklahoma

Sugar: Alabama vs. Utah

Rose: Penn State vs. Oregon State

Fiesta: Texas vs. Southern Cal

Orange: Virginia Tech vs. Cincinnati

Capital One: Georgia vs. Ohio State

Cotton: Mississippi vs. Texas Tech

Outback: South Carolina vs. Michigan State

Gator: Florida State vs. Nebraska

Chick-fil-A: LSU vs. Georgia Tech

Music City: Kentucky vs. Boston College

Liberty: Vanderbilt vs. Houston

Independence: Louisiana Tech vs. Louisiana-Lafayette* West Virginia vs. Troy*

Meineke Car Care: North Carolina vs. Pittsburgh

Champs: Miami vs. Iowa

Emerald: Wake Forest vs. Fresno State*

Humanitarian: Maryland vs. Boise State

EagleBank: N.C. State vs. Navy

* Sun Belt teams will replace the SEC in the Independence and/or bowls if SEC does not have enough bowl-eligible schools. Likewise for the WAC replacing the Pac-10 in the Emerald Bowl.

Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.

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