In many ways, Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall has tried to build his football programs in what has long been considered the SEC model — on a foundation of tough defense and a reliable running game.
For the first time on Saturday, Mendenhall will get a chance to see the real thing in person. His Cavaliers (7-5) will face South Carolina (7-5) in the Belk Bowl in Bank of America Stadium at noon. The 14-year coaching veteran who started his career at BYU will be facing an SEC team for the first time.
“We know about the SEC brand,” Mendenhall said. “I think all of us do in college football. So many times what bowl games do is give a chance for comparison. Not only are you playing against a team but you glimpse of what another conference might be.”
South Carolina’s players are optimistic about how the comparison will shake out well for them. The Gamecocks held their first on-site practice for the game on Wednesday morning at Charlotte Latin School.
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“Every game we go out we are trying to send a message that the SEC is much tougher than the ACC or any other conference,” South Carolina tight end Kiel Pollard said. “We are trying to play the big guy role. You are supposed to beat up on smaller opponents. I feel like we’re the bigger opponent.”
This is the third time South Carolina has faced an ACC team in a bowl game. The Gamecocks lost to Florida State 26-17 in the 2010 Chick-fil-A Bowl and beat Miami 24-21 in the 2014 Independence Bowl.
“Everybody wants to compete with the SEC. Everybody says that their football is equivalent to the SEC, so in bowl games, you get the opportunity to go see,” Gamecocks linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams said. “We know Virginia is a very talented team so we’re going to be excited for the challenge.”
South Carolina is 10-6 in its last 16 games against the ACC. The Belk Bowl will be the first postseason meetings between the conferences this season.
“I’m sure that’s something that a lot of people think about,” Gamecocks linebacker T.J. Brunson said. “We talk about it too, but at the end of the day, we look forward to playing whoever lines up across from us. That narrative of SEC, ACC, whatever’s true, just let it ride. I don’t really care at the end of the day.”
The Cavaliers are 31-49-6 all-time against teams currently in the SEC, but they haven’t played an SEC team since facing Auburn in the 2011 Chick-fil-A Bowl. Prior to that, Virginia’s last game against an SEC team was a 31-7 loss to South Carolina in Williams-Brice Stadium in 2003.
Last week, Brunson was told the Cavaliers would be eager to prove they were capable of beating an SEC team.
“That’s fine,” Brunson responded. “Good luck.”
Belk Bowl info
Who: South Carolina (7-5) vs. Virginia (7-5)
Where: Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina
When: Noon Saturday