South Carolina eager to ‘beat up’ on Virginia in the Belk Bowl
COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina stands as a 6-point favorite over Virginia in Saturday’s Belk Bowl. That’s where the Gamecocks belong, said junior tight end Kiel Pollard.
“You’re supposed to beat up on smaller opponents,” Pollard said after practice last week. “I feel like we’re the bigger opponent.”
Like many of his teammates, Pollard said the bowl matchup against the Cavaliers (7-5) is an opportunity to show that the Southeastern Conference is the top league in college football, a topic that looms large in the face of ACC standard-bearer Clemson’s five year winning streak against in-state rival South Carolina (7-5).
“Every game we go out, we’re trying to send a message that SEC is much tougher than the ACC and any other conference,” Pollard said.
The record would say, over the past five years anyway, that the ACC has more than held its own against the SEC in the postseason, going 8-9 in 17 match ups, including winning a pair of national championships over SEC teams.
Florida State topped Auburn to win the 2013 BCS national championship and two seasons ago, Clemson won the crown over Alabama in the College Football Playoff title game.
“Everybody wants to compete with the SEC,” said South Carolina linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams. “Everybody says their football is equivalent to the SEC. In bowl games, you get the opportunity to go see.”
Virginia is 1-4 all-time in bowl meetings with SEC teams, including losing 43-24 to Auburn in the 2011 Chick-fil-A Bowl. Overall, Virginia is 31-49-6 all-time against current SEC teams.
Virginia senior safety Juan Thornhill was unfazed by the Gamecocks’ bravado.
“I never feel like an underdog going into a game,” Thornhill said. “If they feel like they’re better than us, let them think that. We’ll see Dec. 29.”
Unlike Pollard and Allen-Williams, South Carolina junior linebacker T.J. Brunson largely played down the SEC-ACC angle to the match up. But when it was pointed out to him that U.Va. would be looking to prove its mettle by downing an SEC team, Brunson responded, “that’s fun. Good luck.”
What Brunson and his defensive mates are focused on, he said, is the play-making ability of Virginia junior quarterback Bryce Perkins, the former Arizona State Sun Devil who transferred to the Cavaliers from a junior college and transformed their offense.
Perkins ranked second in the ACC in total offense this year, accounting for 276.2 yards per game passing and running. He threw for 22 touchdowns, tied for third-most in the league, and ran for nine more, tied for the team lead.
“He makes a lot of plays,” Brunson said. “He makes a lot of stuff happen for them.”
Allen-Williams compared Perkins to former South Florida quarterback Quenton Flowers, who led the Bulls to an overtime win over South Carolina in the 2016 Birmingham Bowl, throwing for two touchdowns and running for three more.
“He’s a bigger Quinton Flowers to me,” Allen-Williams said. “He’s a very mobile guy. We just have to contain him in the pocket. … Against a lot of teams, he’s the reason they’re winning games.”
The 5-foot-11, 214-pound Flowers moved to running back in the NFL. Perkins is 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds.
The challenge of stopping Perkins is one of the things that has the Gamecocks focused in on Saturday’s matchup. The chance to finish 8-5 instead of 7-6 is another.
“It’s another opportunity to go out there and make plays, achieve some goals, and have fun playing with my teammates,” said junior wide receiver Bryan Edwards, now the focal point of the Gamecocks’ passing game since star Deebo Samuel announced he’d be skipping the Belk Bowl. “You don’t get that opportunity every day.”
Edwards said that, while the Gamecocks’ regular-season didn’t live up to his expectations, he’s not at all disappointed in the team’s bowl draw, playing U.Va. in Charlotte, just about 90 mile from campus.
“Charlotte’s a cool place,” said Edwards, who played in the Birmingham Bowl as a freshman and the Outback Bowl as a sophomore. “We could be a lot of different places that are a lot worse. We’ve been to some that weren’t that good. I’m grateful we’re going to Charlotte.”