Game preview: A chance to reach bowl eligibility with an exclamation point
D.J. Smith enjoyed being home for the holidays last year, but he doesn’t want to do it again.
“It was good seeing family, but obviously I would rather be playing football than just chilling at the house,” said Smith, a junior safety at South Carolina. “I don’t want to get used to going home.”
Last season’s 3-9 season snapped a school-record seven straight bowl appearances for the Gamecocks, who packed up their lockers on Nov. 29, the day after losing 37-32 to Clemson in the regular season finale.
Last December “was definitely weird,” quarterback Perry Orth said. “We felt like we should have been practicing.”
The Gamecocks (5-5 overall, 3-5 SEC) will be practicing this December as long as they knock off Western Carolina (2-8 overall, 1-7 SoCon) or No. 5 Clemson (9-1). The first chance to earn the bowl eligibility that comes with six wins is Saturday at 4 p.m. in Williams-Brice Stadium when the Catamounts come to town.
“I think it’s always important (to go to a bowl game) with any team, but especially with a very young team, to have opportunities to have extra practices,” first-year South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said. “Football is a developmental game. It’s not like basketball where you can pick up and go one-on-one in the backyard and improve. That’s just not the way football is. You can’t go sit in the batting cage and take batting practice on your own. You’ve got to go play the game.”
If the Gamecocks qualify for a bowl game, they will be able to hold as many practices as they like between the end of the regular season and their postseason slot. (It is a common misconception that bowl practices are capped at 15, but that’s not the case, the NCAA confirmed this week.)
“We need to be able to have these practices to help continue to develop our roster and the youth of our roster,” Muschamp said. “As far as priorities are concerned, I approach every game to try and win the game, so I’m disappointed with where our record is right now, but looking forward to another opportunity on Saturday.”
Smith has not looked at the projections for where South Carolina might play, he said.
“I’m just worried about winning so we can go to a bowl right now,” he said. “I don’t think anything is certain right now as far as who we are going to play.”
Playing anybody will be a treat after last season’s shocking stumble. Starting right tackle Malik Young, who was redshirting the last time the Gamecocks made a bowl trip (to Shreveport, La., for the Duck Commander Independence Bowl in 2014), is looking forward to actually playing in a postseason game this time. When Young signed with South Carolina, the Gamecocks were in the midst of three straight 11-win seasons and the top-flight Florida bowls that came with that.
Missing a bowl “is something I didn’t expect at all going into the season,” he said. “It was just something that happened and that we learned from. Being home in December is not fun at all.”
“Last year was sitting around thinking about the what-ifs, the we-could-haves and we-should-haves,” sophomore tight end K.C. Crosby said.
A bowl game would be “a tremendous step” after last season, junior center Alan Knott.
“We have to get there,” Knott said. “It’s such a fun time for us as a team, and we have to be there.”
Josh Kendall’s Bowl Projections
Games involving SEC teams:
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl (CFB semifinal), Dec. 31– Alabama vs. Ohio State
Sugar Bowl, Jan. 2 – LSU vs. Oklahoma
Citrus Bowl, Dec. 31 – Tennessee vs. Florida State
Outback Bowl, Jan. 2 – Auburn vs. Nebraska
TaxSlayer Bowl, Dec. 31 -- Florida vs. Miami
Music City Bowl, Dec. 30 – Arkansas vs. Iowa
Texas Bowl, Dec. 28 – Texas A&M vs. TCU
Belk Bowl, Dec. 29 – Georgia vs. Virginia Tech
Liberty Bowl, Dec. 30 – Ole Miss vs. Texas
Birmingham Bowl, Dec. 29 – Kentucky vs. Houston
Independence Bowl, Dec. 26 – South Carolina vs. Wake Forest