UConn enters the Papajohns.com Bowl with a 7-5 record -- and those five losses came by a total of 15 points. The Huskies fell to North Carolina and Cincinnati by two points, Pittsburgh by three, and West Virginia and Rutgers by four. One fewer touchdown in each of those contests and the Huskies, not the Bearcats, represent the Big East in the BCS.
On the other hand, the Huskies also beat Notre Dame by two in double overtime, and South Florida by two on a last-minute field goal. And when five games are lost in the fourth quarter, that goes beyond bad luck.
The Huskies always come ready to play, and always are in the game late, but they haven't always had the horses to win. The defense, in particular, has had problems holding the line in the fourth quarter, especially since the offense surged in the second half of the season.
Injuries have hurt, with linebacker Scott Lutrus limited for much of the year and ferocious hitter Greg Lloyd now out for the season. But one of the two defining moments of the season concerned another prominent member of the defense, and what happened outside a campus dance a few hours after the team's victory over Louisville.
When cornerback Jasper Howard was killed, it cast a pall over the entire team. Howard was among the most popular players on the squad, and across the Big East. In a sadly ironic twist for the Huskies, in the first game without him, Howard's friend Tim Brown made the winning catch for Rutgers in the final seconds to send UConn down to defeat.
But just when it looked like a bowl game would be a reach, the Huskies secured the biggest win in the history of the program with its 33-30 victory over Notre Dame in double overtime. That thrust the school onto the map and helped it secure this bowl game against South Carolina as opposed to one of the Big East's lower-tier offerings.
Connecticut will have a tough time with the speed of the Gamecocks, but one thing is clear. Judging by their 2009 season thus far, the Huskies will keep it in doubt until the final few minutes, regardless of whether they come out on top or not.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The Huskies run the ball well, but this isn't the 2008 UConn squad that was utterly dependent on current Indianapolis Colt Donald Brown. Jordan Todman and Andre Dixon are both strong runners who can wear down a defense, but this Connecticut team can hurt opponents through the air as well, particularly via the Zach Frazer-Marcus Easley connection.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: This is a game where the Huskies will really miss Greg Lloyd, the linebacker who is out for the season with an injury suffered in the win over Syracuse. It also will miss Jasper Howard's on-field presence, since UConn doesn't have much secondary depth and has been vulnerable through the air versus teams with a quality passing attack.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: The Connecticut secondary vs. Stephen Garcia -- The key to the game for UConn will be stopping the Gamecocks' passing attack. If it can do that, South Carolina won't score enough to win. But the Huskies have struggled to defend the air attack this season, and if Garcia can pick apart the cornerbacks and safeties, Connecticut is in real trouble here.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We had 12 games, and I think we got our kids' best effort in all 12 of those games. Sometimes that doesn't always happen throughout the year." -- Connecticut coach Randy Edsall told the Connecticut Post.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
BOWL BREAKDOWN: Connecticut vs. South Carolina, Papajohns.com Bowl, Jan. 2, Birmingham, Ala. -- It's the first meeting ever between the two schools, and the Huskies will likely face a hostile crowd, considering that it's a shorter drive from Columbia, S.C. than from Storrs, Conn.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Zach Frazer -- UConn has always been able to run the football, but the difference in the Huskies' offense this season is a capable passing attack to go with it. Still, Frazer is less of a sure thing than the running back combination of Jordan Todman and Andre Dixon, so defenses still focus on stopping the running game first. It South Carolina follows the pattern, Frazer will have to respond by making them pay without turning the ball over.
PK Dave Teggart -- Teggart has been automatic on extra points this season. On field goals, not so much. He was the hero of the South Florida game, winning it with a last-minute 42-yard field goal, and the Papajohns.com Bowl may come down to a similar late-game situation.
LB Scott Lutrus -- For the most part, this has been a wasted season for Lutrus, who has battled injuries since the opening game. But he's healthy now and playing well, and he will be needed even more without Greg Lloyd available. The question is whether he'll shift to the middle to replace Lloyd, as he did against South Florida, or go back to the strong-side position he played most of the year.
DE Lindsey Witten -- The senior has put up good numbers this year, but a lot of that came against bad teams. If he's looking to impress scouts at the next level, and doing well against South Carolina would be a big help.
--FS Robert Vaughn suffered a head injury in the regular-season finale against South Florida, but he expects to play in the bowl game. He'll be badly needed to stop the South Carolina passing attack.
--DE Trevardo Williams also suffered a head injury against the Bulls, but should be ready to go by the Papajohns.com Bowl.
--LB Greg Lloyd is out for the season after injuring his knee against Syracuse. He likely won't be back on the field until August at the earliest.