No offense to the good folks who put on the Independence Bowl, which will hold its 39th postseason contest on Saturday, but the bowl is kind of a joke among fans. Not the bowl itself, perhaps, as much as the destination. Bowl games are often thought of as fun opportunities for teams and fans to go to glamorous cities like Miami or Pasadena, or at least colorful locales like Memphis. "Shreveport in December" just doesn't have the same ring to it.
And if you want to get a sense of how the bowl is thought of, just look at where it falls in the selection pecking order: South Carolina was literally the last team selected out of the SEC after a dream-crushing 2014 campaign, and Miami wasn't far behind in its place among the ACC teams chosen for a bowl. There are years in which South Carolina or Miami would have been a catch for any postseason game, but this is not one of those years where either team is concerned.
There's also the fact that the title sponsor for the bowl is Duck Commander, a duck-call manufacturer owned by a beard-loving family better known for its exploits on the television series "Duck Dynasty." Even if you take out the controversial comments of the family's patriarch -- Phil Robertson, a former Louisiana Tech quarterback -- there's still the whole idea of a bowl sponsored by the stars of a reality TV show, and self-proclaimed rednecks to boot. It doesn't exactly carry the same cachet as a bowl sponsored by Discover or even Outback -- though it might narrowly edge out Bitcoin as the title sponsor of the St. Petersburg Bowl. And the family will be hard to miss if you're watching the game.
All of that is to say that motivation might be as much of a factor as anything in this contest between two 6-6 teams who had losing records in their respective conferences. Despite the best efforts of the game's hosts, it's hard to say the either the Gamecocks or the Hurricanes really want to be here.
1A long decade. If you want to know how much Steve Spurrier has changed in a decade at the helm of South Carolina, consider this: The Gamecocks (or at least their fans) are disappointed to be at the Independence Bowl. Nine years ago, after the Head Ball Coach's first season in Columbia, South Carolina fans were pleased to be going to any bowl -- in that case, it was a trip to Shreveport to take on the Missouri Tigers from the Big 12. (Again, it's been a long decade.) South Carolina had endured three bowl-less seasons and had just 11 postseason appearances in 111 seasons of football. Now, the Gamecocks are going to their seventh consecutive bowl game and came into the season seen as a playoff contender -- and will instead be the first SEC team to play after being the last conference squad chosen for a bowl. Motivation for a bowl game might actually be a problem for South Carolina this season.
2History. If you were to guess whether Steve Spurrier or South Carolina had more of a history against Miami, you might guess incorrectly. Spurrier actually faced Miami just once during his coaching days in Gainesville, a 37-27 loss in the Sugar Bowl following the 2000 season. (The more significant history involving Spurrier might be trying to avoid only the second losing season in his college coaching career.) South Carolina is 5-8-2 against the Hurricanes, though the two teams haven't met since 1987, and the Gamecocks haven't won since 1947, the last victory before a six-game losing streak. In total, Spurrier and South Carolina have a combined one win against Miami since before America's entry into World War II. One more historical oddity: South Carolina has never scored more than eight points in a win against Miami, something that is likely to change if the Gamecocks manage to pull the upset in this one.
3Points points points? Even if South Carolina didn't have the worst defense in the SEC, the potential for this game to turn into a barn-burner would be real. Both the Hurricanes and the Gamecocks have offenses that rank in the top third (or so) of their respective conferences. Miami leads the ACC in yards per play and ranks fourth in total yardage despite running fewer plays than anyone else in the conference. The Hurricanes have run 764 plays this season, and dreadful Wake Forest is the only other team in the league with fewer than 800. The Gamecocks are fifth in the SEC in total yardage, though that drops to seventh if you adjust it to yards per play. But gaining 6.1 yards each snap is still pretty good. There are some reasons to think that South Carolina will have more problems keeping up that pace in Shreveport, but the potential for both to churn out yardage remains.
4Defense could decide it. If you have a couple of good offenses taking the field, sometimes the result of the game comes down to which team has the capability to get a few stops. And, well, "stopping" other teams is not really South Carolina's thing. Calling the Gamecocks the worst defense in the SEC is not a rhetorical flourish; South Carolina is allowing a conference-worst 6.3 yards a play -- almost a full half-yard worse than the infamously bad Texas A&M defense. But Miami pairs its great offense with one of the better defenses in the ACC. The Hurricanes allow just 4.7 yards a play, third in the conference. It's hard to see South Carolina doing much to slow down Miami, so if the Hurricanes stop the Gamecocks a few times, that could be the game.
5A close game? Both of these teams were an even .500 on the year, going 6-6 overall and 3-5 in conference. But neither was very far from a better record. Of its half-dozen losses, Miami dropped just two games by more than two possessions. The same for South Carolina -- the only real blowout losses that South Carolina suffered were the bookends of a disappointing season, in the buzz-busting loss against Texas A&M to open the season and the year-ending blowout at Clemson. Their wins are a bit more interesting; Miami's victory against Duke was its only marginally close game, but that was about the only Hurricanes win that could be defined as a quality victory. South Carolina had more close wins, and its only real quality win was one of those -- the rivalry game against Georgia. Both of these teams have a bit of Jekyll-and-Hyde in them, which makes this game even more difficult to guess.
THREE TO WATCH
Pharoh Cooper, WR, South Carolina: Despite the prolific output of the South Carolina offense, the Gamecocks have few players that would truly qualify as dynamic, but Cooper is one. He has 60 catcheas for 966 yards and eight touchdowns as a receiver and is 5-of-8 passing for 78 yards and two touchdowns as a wildcat quarterback. That also accounts for a good chunk of Cooper's 198 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries. Look for Spurrier to try to get the ball in Cooper's hands early and often.
Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina: Davis never got as much hype as Marcus Lattimore, and a good case can be made that he doesn't have as much pure talent as his predecessor as the team's starting running back. But Davis has the chance to do something that only George Rogers has done at South Carolina: Run for 1,000 yards each in more than one season. So when Davis was announcing his decision to enter the NFL Draft and said "[y]ou always want to go out with a bang," it's not hard to figure out what at least one of his goals is going to be.
Duke Johnson, RB, Miami: Of course, Miami has its own great running back who is likely taking the field for the last time in a Hurricanes uniform, though Duke Johnson is playing things a little bit closer to the vest. He has 1,520 yards rushing, or 62.2 percent of all Miami's running yardage, and is the team's second-leading receiver, with 33 catches for 370 yards and three touchdowns. His 1,890 all-purpose yards are almost 1,000 more than the next-highest Miami player. Any hope of South Carolina shutting down Miami has to include limiting the damage Johnson can do.
Bowl games are incredibly hard to call, and all the factors that play into that come together in this game. Will players that are headed for the draft really play that hard? What do we make of the mindsets of traditional power Miami and nouveau riche program South Carolina finding themselves in Shreveport? And what happens when you give Steve Spurrier, who is still one of the better play-callers in the game, three weeks to break down film and plot his moves? Those are all a bit unknowable, so the best thing to do is to go with what we do know: South Carolina's offense is capable of keeping the team in just about any game, and the defense is capable of keeping its opponents in just about any game, to the extent that the other team can usually win if it's any good. Miami (FL) 34, South Carolina 31