BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - It is short drive on I-20/I-59 from South Carolina's hotel to Legion Field, but it is packed with memories for Ellis Johnson - most of them good.
The Gamecocks' assistant head coach for defense had two stints covering eight years at Alabama, which used to play about half its home games at Legion Field, site of Saturday's Papajohns.com Bowl.
"It's a special place," Johnson said Thursday. "We were driving from the hotel over here to practice (at nearby Birmingham Southern College) on that little interstate strip. I've pulled out of there a lot of times with a cold one in the backseat with (former Alabama defensive coordinator) Bill Oliver. And we were usually smiling."
Johnson said one of his best memories from Legion Field was in 1992 when the Crimson Tide beat Florida and Steve Spurrier to win the first SEC championship game. Johnson was at the stadium three years ago while at Mississippi State to play UAB, and was sorry to see it was in need of repair.
"It's a sad situation, but it's got a lot of history," Johnson said. "The structure and some of the negative parts about it, you almost get tired of hearing about it because it means a lot to you."
Late date. This year's date is the latest on the bowl calendar in the game's four-year history. Mark Meadows, executive director of the ESPN-owned bowl, said officials liked the idea of playing the game on a Saturday.
The bowl surpassed last year's advanced ticket sales three weeks ago. Organizers believe with good weather - the forecast is sunny and a high of 43 degrees - they will break last year's record crowd of 36,387 for Rutgers' 29-23 victory against N.C. State.
The Papajohns.com Bowl will compete with the Cotton for TV ratings. But Meadows said officials wanted the Birmingham game to kick off ESPN's tripleheader, which also includes the Liberty and Alamo bowls.
Crying game. Thursday was the final practice for the Gamecocks' nine seniors, a group that includes All-American linebacker Eric Norwood.
Norwood, the Gamecocks' first AP All-American in 25 years, said this week he would like to put book-end victories on his career. Norwood's first game as a Gamecock was a 15-0 shutout of Mississippi State in the 2006 season opener.
Asked about Norwood's final days in a USC uniform, Johnson said: "He hasn't had any crying moments or anything like that, yet. He hasn't. I might."
Extra points. Spurrier said the Gamecocks had a better practice Thursday, including quarterback Stephen Garcia. The right-hander called Wednesday's practice one of his worst. ... Reserve cornerback Addison Williams (hamstring) was the only player in a yellow, non-contact jersey. ...
The Gamecocks attended a bowling and barbecue outing Thursday night, with a four-man team headed by receiver Moe Brown defeating a team from UConn. ... USC will hold a walk-through at Legion Field today.
Thursday post-practice video: Steve Spurrier
Thursday post-practice video: Assistant coaches