The Side Line

Carolina-Wisconsin a Marquee Bowl Matchup

Capital Gains

By James Harley
Tuesday, December 24, 2013
With many of this season’s big name bowl matchups the disappointing result of politics and money rather than on-field merit, South Carolina’s trip to Orlando to face the Wisconsin Badgers in the Capital One Bowl on New Year’s Day promises to be one of the most interesting games of the 2013 post-season.

It’s the first-ever meeting between the two teams, both of which got the shaft in one way or another this year: Carolina somehow ended up ranked one slot behind Missouri in the BCS despite beating the Tigers head-to-head; Wisconsin was clearly robbed of a win over Arizona State after referees refused to spot the ball for a short field goal with eight seconds left on the clock.

The strengths and weaknesses of each team look to make for a classic New Year’s Day battle. Many armchair pundits see Wisconsin as a purely one-dimensional team that lives and dies by the run. This is an easy generalization to make with the Badgers ranked eighth in the nation in overall rushing and with star running backs Melvin Gordon and James White both averaging more than 100 yards per game. Obviously this kind of impressive achievement indicates extreme strength on the offensive line, but don’t overlook Wisconsin’s defense. The Badgers rank sixth in scoring defense, holding opponents (including five bowl teams) to an average of just 15 points a game.

Their strongest asset? They can stop the pass, ranking 12th in this category, which is exactly what they will need to do against Carolina, with Connor Shaw among the nation’s most efficient quarterbacks. But the loss of the Gamecocks’ number two wide receiver, Damiere Byrd, to a knee injury sustained during practice this week makes for an intriguing challenge developing here.

On the flipside, Carolina will have to stop the run. But that’s been a source of relative strength: Though the Gamecocks are ranked only 33rd in total rushing defense, against a tough schedule the Gamecocks have held opponents to just 142 yards per game, exactly half of Wisconsin’s average rushing output. This wide discrepancy is a clear sign that there will be a serious battle in the trenches. Who will win it? Well, Carolina defeated its two other Top-25 rushing opponents Missouri (17th) and Arkansas (24th), with its only quality loss coming to Georgia, which despite a strong running game early in the year actually finished with a better passing game than rushing game.

Another factor to consider is that while passing offenses have the ability to avoid feared defensive end Jadeveon Clowney by loading the line against him, teams committed to the run such as Wisconsin must attack the entire line in order to be effective. That slightly tips the scale in the Gamecocks’ favor.

So we have two fairly evenly matched teams going at it on New Year’s Day. Though Vegas considers the Badgers a very narrow favorite, trends would indicate a Gamecock victory, given that Carolina is at its historical peak as a program while Wisconsin has lost five of its last six bowl games. That’s not to say that the Badgers do not deserve to be there, just that they seem to fail when anything substantial is on the line. Meanwhile, with Spurrier at the helm and a group of great Gamecocks who know how to win — like Shaw, Clowney and Kelcy Quarles — playing in their last collegiate game and undoubtedly seeking to make a statement, it’s hard to imagine Wisconsin playing harder for this one than the Gamecocks. Of course, that’s without even mentioning the SEC’s recent bowl dominance over the Big 10. Gamecocks 38, Badgers 27.

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