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Bowling For Eight

Posted on December 28, 2018, in Football by Karl Hess.

The Hoos are bowling for the second consecutive season. And also for the second consecutive season, the football team finds itself in the bowl of choice of the fanbase.

Last season it was the George Welsh Memorial in the Military Bowl vs Navy. This year's matchup against South Carolina in the Belk Bowl is more akin to Vineyard Vines vs Southern Tide.

Can the Hoos pick up their 8th win for the first time since 2011 and their first bowl win since 2005? Or will they succumb to an opponent from the mighty SEC for the second time in their last three bowl appearances?

Weather Report

No one will soon forget the miserable weather in Annapolis last December. 

The 2018 football season saw many games impacted by rain. For a spell, it looked like the Belk Bowl would be played in wet conditions. But the football Gods are currently smiling on the Hoos. 

The Hoos will be wearing navy from head to toe. 

ABC has the broadcast coverage nationally. The game is scheduled for noon on Saturday, December 29.

Adam Amin (@adamamin), Rocky Boiman (@ROCKYBOIMAN50), and Anthony Becht (@Anthony_Becht) will have the call.

Who's Missing

Mandy Alonso and Gerrik Vollmer are the only real personnel question marks for the Hoos. Alsono was lost during the Pitt game so the Hoos have adapted to his absence by now. Vollmer saw action at center against Liberty as an injury replacement for Dillon Reinkensmeyer before departing with his own injury. Vollmer appears as the number two center on the Belk Bowl depth chart released by the football program this week. Our assumption is that he'll be ready to go if needed.

South Carolina's personnel situation is much more up in the air.

We know that their top skill position weapon, wide receiver Deebo Samuel, is skipping the game to focus on training for the 2019 NFL draft. Samuel caught 62 passes on the season for 882 yards (14.2 per reception) and 11 touchdowns. He also averaged 24.8 yards per kick return (23 returns) with 1 kick return for a touchdown. The Gamecocks will have to take a team approach to replacing Samuel. There's no plug and play option on the roster.

On the injury front, the Gamecocks have 14 players out for the year. They've also had 14 players with starting experience miss time during the season.

They do expect some relief as defenders Bryson Allen-Williams (linebacker) and Jaycee Horn (defensive back) will play. Defensive lineman Keir Thomas also looks to play. Defensive lineman Aaron Sterling does appear doubtful. True freshman linebacker Ernest Jones will burn his redshirt (5th game played) in order to provide needed depth on defense.

Starting offensive lineman Zack Bailey broke his leg during South Carolina's season finale against Akron and will miss the Belk Bowl. Bailey's injury has caused the Gamecocks to shuffle their OL a bit and heading into the bowl they've yet to settle on a starting lineup.

24 +1 +5 Report

According to Bronco, the formula for winning a college football game is simple. If you score 24 points or more, have at least a +1 turnover margin, and at least a +5 average starting field position, you'll win 85% of the time.

How did the Hoos and Gamecocks do during the regular season against these metrics?

TeamPPGTM Per GameField Position
UVA27.30.0+6.96
SC31.1-0.6+2.42

The points per game and turnover margin stats are courtesy of TeamRankings. The field position stats are courtesy of College Football Analytics

The Hoos cross the bar in 2 out of 3 categories while the Gamecocks do in just 1 of 3. Of course, at the end of the day, only the scoreboard matters. But Bronco has to look at these stats and feel positive about the Hoos' chances.

Limit Bentley

According to Bronco, junior South Carolina QB Jake Bentley is similar to Ryan Finley of NC State running Duke's offense. The 6-4 Bentley threw for 2,953 yards on the season completing 69.3% of his passes. He tossed 27 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. His yards per attempt was 8.5, 18th best in FBS. His Total QBR was 76.6 which was 22nd best in FBS.

Bentley's best game of the season was against Clemson where he threw for 510 yards and 5 touchdowns against 1 interception. Against the Tigers, he completed 64.0% of his passes in the 56 to 35 loss.

Most recently, Bentley threw for 199 yards in 27 attempts against Akron. That was good for 3 touchdowns against 2 interceptions. Against the Zips, he completed only 51.9% of his passes in the 28 to 3 victory.

The absence of Deebo Samuel will help immensely here but Samuel was far from the only talented South Carolina receiver. Junior Bryan Edwards (6-3, 220 lbs.) caught 52 passes for 809 yards (15.6 per catch) and 7 touchdowns. Sophomore Shi Smith (5-10, 187 lbs.) added 39 catches for 597 yards (15.3 per catch) and 4 touchdowns in 10 games.

The Hoos will need to contain the pace of South Carolina's offense. Besides the schematic similarities to Duke, they also run at a similar pace to the Blue Devils. The Hoos did well against Duke this season, winning 28 to 14 while holding the Blue Devils to just 320 yards of offense. Both Liberty and North Carolina also run offenses that attempt to push the pace and found some success against the Hoos when they were able to speed things up.

Like UVA did against Duke, look for ball control to be one of the biggest tools in the tool bag for slowing down the Gamecocks on offense. Per TeamRankings, UVA ranked 23rd in average time of possession excluding OT at 32:19 per game. In that Duke game, UVA held onto the ball for 36:38.

Motivation

I'm a firm believer that the team with the most motivation is likely to win in a bowl game. We saw that play out dramatically last year in the Military Bowl. UVA was happy to be there and offended Navy during pre-game warmups when multiple players walked through the Midshipmen's warmup lines. Navy was understandably pissed and annihilated the Hoos.

The motivating factors for UVA are clear in this game: 8 wins, a win over a SEC team, first bowl win since 2005, ending a two game losing streak, atoning for the Military Bowl performance, and so on. It would be a considerable red flag if the Hoos came out flat for this game.

The thing is, there's nothing on the surface that shows that South Carolina won't be similarly motivated. Their reasons may not be as obvious to Virginia fans and followers. But the Gamecocks will be playing in front of a ton of their fans, bringing back several players from injury, and won't want to lose to an ACC team.

This key looks to be a draw.

The Pick

It would be easy to pick the Hoos to win. It would certainly be fun. I did that with the Virginia Tech game. The Hoos almost pulled that out and made me look like a genius.

South Carolina certainly isn't an insurmountable foe for the Hoos even if they are a slight favorite. I do think that the Gamecocks have just enough of an advantage in personnel to eke out a close victory. I'm expecting the UVA secondary to turn in an excellent performance that does limit South Carolina's passing attack.

My expectation is that a close loss in the Belk Bowl, the third such in a row, sets the tone and theme for the 2019 season. Finishing. Finish the drive, finish the game, and finish the season.

South Carolina wins 27 to 21.

This article contains the tags:

2018 Football, Belk Bowl, South Carolina