Birmingham Bowl: South Florida Bulls vs. South Carolina Gamecocks
Date: Dec. 29, 2 p.m. ET on ESPN
Location: Legion Field | Birmingham, Alabama
Best moment: Beating No. 19 Navy, 52-45. South Florida had something to prove after losing to Temple, and scored on its first six possessions of the game to build a commanding lead. The Midshipmen came storming back in the fourth quarter, but the Bulls held off the late charge for the win. They set single-game records for rushing yards (412) and had three 100-yard rushers for the first time as well.
Lowest moment: Losing to Temple. A win in this game would have sent the Bulls to the American Athletic Conference championship game. But the Owls ran for 319 yards and completely dominated on the ground, winning decisively, 46-30. It didn’t help matters for the Bulls when star quarterback Quinton Flowers injured his hamstring in the fourth quarter and missed the rest of the game.
Key player: Flowers. One of the greatest players in school history, Flowers has a plethora of records to his name: the first 2,000-yard passer and 1,000-yard rusher in school history; single-season rushing touchdowns (13); single-game total offense (473 yards), and more. He ranks 10th in the nation in total offense, averaging 331.3 yards per game.
Motivation level: High. USF already has set a school record with 10 wins this season, so how about one more? The Bulls haven’t won a bowl game under Willie Taggart, who has done a phenomenal job turning around the program in four years. And a win here could be a huge lift into 2017, with Flowers back running the offense. -- Andrea Adelson
Best moment: Bear in mind that this was a team expected to finish last in the SEC East, a team no one really imagined would make a bowl game. The roster Steve Spurrier left behind when he abruptly retired last season was woefully inadequate, and not many people were high on Will Muschamp getting the job done after his stint at Florida. So, in a way, you could point to a Week 1 win over Vanderbilt as the tone-setter. But for argument’s sake, let’s zero in on the 24-21 win over Tennessee later in the season. That, in a nutshell, said to the South Carolina fan base that there is hope. By beating, at home, the team picked to win the East, the Gamecocks and Muschamp sent a message that the program didn’t have to be as bad as everyone believed.
Lowest moment: It’s not that South Carolina was supposed to beat Clemson. Keeping the game close might have been a long shot. But to lose 56-7 was painful. The game started with an odd non-exchange between Muschamp and Dabo Swinney, and South Carolina players alleged that they heard racial slurs from Clemson players. All the way around, the game was ugly. The only solace in ending the regular season with such a terrible defeat was knowing that a bowl game was on the way.
Key player: With all due respect to Perry Orth and Brandon McIlwain, they weren’t getting the job done at quarterback. The offense was, in a word, miserable. So, Muschamp did what he didn’t really want to do: he called on true freshman Jake Bentley. And, mind you, this wasn’t an ordinary freshman. Bentley was 17 years old and skipped his senior year of high school to enroll at South Carolina. Feeding him to the wolves was dangerous. But it paid off. Bentley’s numbers might not be eye-popping, but they were solid with six touchdowns, two interceptions and a 63 percent completion rate. More than that, though, was the shot of adrenaline he gave the offense. With Bentley pulling the levers, South Carolina went from woeful to respectable.
Motivation level: High. When 90 percent of your offensive touchdowns are being scored by underclassmen, you know you’re young. And with that kind of inexperience, these next few weeks of practice and the bowl game to follow are crucial. Muschamp has already made a statement by getting this far. A win would mean even more toward building a vision of a better future for South Carolina football. -- Alex Scarborough