Following a dominating victory over archrival Clemson in its final regular-season game, South Carolina enters it matchup against Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl feeling as good about itself as it has any time this season.
The Gamecocks finished the season with a 10-2 record, marking only the second time in school history the school has won that many games. The team finished ninth in the BCS standings which helped earn it an invitation to the Capital One Bowl, which is the highest rated non-BCS Bowl available to Southeastern Conference squads.
The win over Clemson may have been Carolina's best all-around performance as it rushed and passed for 210 yards each, while holding a potent Clemson offense to 153 total yards. "Our team has a lot to play for, probably more than any team in the county, other than the two teams playing for the national championship," said USC coach Steve Spurrier. "We have a chance to win our 11th game, something that has never been accomplished at this school. We're really excited to be in the game and play Nebraska, a team with a national reputation."
The Gamecocks managed to finish with a top-10 national ranking despite losing quarterback Stephen Garcia (kicked off the team) and running back Marcus Lattimore (season ending knee injury) in back-to-back weeks. Probably just as important was the loss of senior tackle Kyle Nunn, early in the season, to a back injury.
The team, under sophomore quarterback Connor Shaw, became more of a "Read Option" attack as Spurrier opted to use the speed and elusiveness of his signal-caller. The offense sputtered for a few weeks, but appeared to get on track in the final two games of the season against The Citadel and Clemson.
"It is a lot different when you get thrown into the fire," said Shaw. "The main thing is your confidence. Game in and game out your confidence grows as much as you play. In the past six games I feel my confidence has gotten better game by game."
The USC defense has been dominant most of the season, ending the campaign on a roll.
"We're just trying to establish a winning tradition here so we believe every week, every game, is a stepping stone for our program," said senior defensive end Melvin Ingram. "It is another opportunity to get better.
"Since we came here we have gone from losing our last six games my freshman year to now being 10-2 and going to the Capital One Bowl. The program has change. We're trying to turn it into a winning tradition and so far that is what it is going to be."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
--QB Connor Shaw -- Following a rocky start in USC's season-opener against East Carolina, Shaw appears to have hit his stride. He has not only completed 112 of 171 passes for 1,218 yards and 12 touchdowns, but finished second on the team in rushing with 483 yards and seven touchdowns. He appears comfortable with the read/option scheme put in place for him and his confidence has grown. That has earned the confidence of his teammates.
--WR Alshon Jeffery has not had nearly as strong a season, statistically, as he did in his sophomore year. The All-American wide receiver hasn't pouted about getting less passes thrown his way. He proved just how valuable he could be against Clemson. He caught only two passes for 29 yards, but one went for an 18-yard touchdown from quarterback Connor Shaw. The circumstances made the play more impressive as he broke a bone in his hand on the team's first possession, but returned to action and eventually made the fourth-quarter reception.
--DT Melvin Ingram has been possibly USC's most impressive defensive performer this season. Following a stretch in which he went without a sack after injuring his foot, he returned to form against Clemson, picking up five tackles, which included two sacks. He has a team leading 8.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss.
--Steve Spurrier has preached changing the culture since arriving at USC as its coach. He appears to be turning the corner as his 2011 team continued to find a way to win after several standout players were lost for the season either due to injury or dismissal. The Gamecocks managed to post a 4-1 record following the loss of All-American tailback Marcus Lattimore to season-ending knee injury. Spurrier believes the next step is for USC to win its bowl game against Arkansas.
BOWL HISTORY: South Carolina is 4-12-0 in bowl games and has dropped three straight under coach Steve Spurrier. The Gamecocks are 1-4 during the tenure of the Head Ball Coach. The Gamecocks were on the short end of a 26-17 score against Florida State following last season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think a lot of people in my hometown now see the real Carolina is here at South Carolina. Growing up there, all the years it was the Tar Heels and N.C. State. (Teammate) Melvin and I have been playing here for a long time. When I (go) back home I see a lot more Gamecocks gear and Gamecocks stuff than I usually see. I think a lot of fans know the real Carolina is right here in South Carolina." -- DT Travian Robertson on the perception of the USC program in his home state of North Carolina.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Scouting the running game: Many believed the USC running game would fall apart when sophomore All-American RB Marcus Lattimore was lost for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. That didn't turn out to be the case as the Gamecocks had a 100-yard rusher in four of their last five games. Freshman Brandon Wilds was the main producer in three of those contests. After starting the season as Carolina's No. 5 running back, he was forced into action as those in front of him fell due to injury. He finished the season with 486 yards and three touchdowns on 107 carries. QB Connor Shaw was the 100-yard rusher against Clemson as the Read/Option scheme appears to fit the offensive line.
Scouting the passing game: Sophomore QB Connor Shaw has had his ups and downs passing the football since taking over for senior Stephen Garcia. He has put together two of his best game at the end of the season, completing 16 of 18 passes for 201 yards and four touchdowns against The Citadel and 12 of 17 for 210 yards and three scores against Clemson. While junior Alshon Jeffery has been the squad's main target, several receivers have picked up the slack, with sophomore Ace Sanders and redshirt freshman Bruce Ellington, the leading score on the Gamecocks' 2010-11 basketball team, at the head of the pack.
Scouting the run defense: It has had its weak moments, but USC has put together a solid season against the run. With fifth-year senior T Travian Robertson anchoring the front, the Gamecocks have limited opponents to 135.9 yards per game have allowed only 11 rushing touchdowns. The team has shown some vulnerability up the middle, but ended the season in style, holding the Tigers to 70 yards on 30 carries. Freshman T Kelcy Quarles has pushed his way into the starting lineup beside Robertson and has steadily improved.
Scouting the pass defense: After having one of most porous secondaries a year ago, the Gamecocks have transformed into one of the best defenses against the pass this season. That is remarkable since Assistant Head Coach-Defense Ellis Johnson has been forced to work around several injuries to key players. The group, led by junior Stephon Gilmore, has limited opponents to 133 yards per game through the air. Carolina has intercepted 15 passes. The good news for the unit is, it enters its bowl game healthier than any other point in the season.
Intangibles: Following a season in which the Gamecocks struggled to pick up turnovers, they have transformed into one of the nation's leaders, picking off 15 interceptions and recovering 12 fumbles. The team has two punt returns for scores, with one a score by senior T Melvin Ingram on a fake punt.