Five Questions For The Liberty Bowl
1. How will both teams respond after the long layoff?
One of the hidden keys to bowl season is how each team responds to the long layoff between the regular season finale and the bowl game. Houston has not played a game in nearly a month, while South Carolina has not taken the field since their 31-28 victory over Clemson on November 25.
Both teams have certainly practiced a fair amount during their time off, but as a veteran of bowl preparations, Coach Steve Spurrier believes it's important for teams to peak at the right time. It won't take long on Friday afternoon to figure out if either team has neglected to bring their ‘A' game, as careless penalties, early turnovers, and lack of intensity are sure signs of a long layoff gone bad.
2. Who will win the quarterback battle?
The Liberty Bowl will feature two explosive offenses led by two of the nation's better signal-callers. The Cougars are led by senior Kevin Kolb, who has thrown for 3,423 yards and an amazing 27-3 touchdown to interception ratio this year. Kolb, who was the driving force behind Houston's 10-3 season, is one of the most dynamic playmakers in America, and he is considered to be one of the top quarterbacks available in the upcoming NFL draft.
On the other sideline, junior Blake Mitchell has been performing at arguably an All-SEC level since earning his starting role back against the Florida Gators on November 11. Mitchell, who has grown immensely under Spurrier's tutelage the past two years, has shown poise, precision, and leadership in helping lead the Gamecocks to a 2-1 finish down the stretch.
3. Where's the defense?
It is no secret that both South Carolina and Houston are capable of putting points on the board. That is why many analysts believe this game will be a high-scoring affair, but the key may very well be which defense can force the occasional turnover and/or come up with timely stops. Houston is not necessarily known for their defense, but they hold opponents to just under 22 points per game, which ranks 52nd in the nation. That may not seem all that impressive, but they also rank 13th in America in turnover margin (+10) on the season.
The Gamecocks, on the other hand, had to survive off their young but athletic defense early in the season. Led by senior cornerback Fred Bennett, USC boasts the nation's #21 ranked pass defense by only allowing 173 yards per game through the air. Carolina also claims a stout scoring defense by allowing a mere 17 points per game.
4. Will special teams play a factor?
The kicking game often has a way of playing an important role in the outcome of bowl contests, whether it be a game-breaking kickoff or punt return, a blocked kick, or just winning the field position battle. Neither South Carolina or Houston feature a dynamic return game, but both squads have struggled at times on special teams coverage. If either team can gain a decisive advantage in special teams, that could play a factor in the outcome of the game.
5. Will the weather cooperate?
With the bowl game just three days away, the weather is the biggest question on everyone's mind right now. While the temperatures are expected to be in the low 60‘s, current forecasts call for a 50% chance of rain on Friday. If heavy showers invade the Liberty Bowl, then Friday's contest could quickly turn into a sloppy affair.
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