By Jeff Moeller
JACKSONVILLE – At first glance, the officers of the Gator Bowl; though they had a great matchup between 19th -ranked and relatively local favorite South Carolina and 21st and traditional favorite Notre Dame when they unveil the 78th annual Tax Slayer classic at TIAA Field Friday at 3:30 p.m.
These are two top-25 ranked teams with Cinderella-type seasons.
As an added bonus, these two teams are some of the biggest draws in college football. South Carolina weekly sells out its 77,00-plus stadium, and Notre Dame is a traditional major draw across the country. It shouldn’t be any problem filling the 67,164 capacity.
The script for these two teams is strikingly similar.
South Carolina struggled in the early going with a 5-3 record before they knocked off ranked Tennessee and Clemson in succession to cap an 8-4 regular season. Notre Dame was sluggish and dropped its first two games and lost starting quarterback Dylan Buchner. But the FIghting Irish rallied behind backup Drew Pyne, who threw for more than 2,000 yards and tossed 22 touchdowns.
Now, both teams are 8-4 and are headed for a classic showdown in what could easily be interpreted as an electric afternoon.
However, there may be some juice missing on both sides. Still, sometimes you don’t need a stacked deck to have a good hand. With the resurgence of the Jaguars, football is alive and well back in Jacksonville. Just ask a Cowboys’ fan.
South Carolina was recently sidetracked by a series of players entering the transfer portal as well as some declaring early for the NFL draft.
Gamecock starters running back MarShawn Lloyd, tight end/running back Jaheim Bell, and tight end Austin Stogner announced that they have entered the transfer portal.
Lloyd, a redshirt sophomore, is the Gamecocks’ leading rusher with 573 yards, and he has scored nine touchdowns. Bell, a junior, had emerged as a dual threat as a tight end/running back, having 231 yards receiving and 261 yards rushing. Stogner caught 20 passes for 210 yards with a touchdown.
Defensively, Cornerbacks Cam Smith and Darius Rush along with defensive end Zacch Pickens won’t participate in the Gator Bowl because they all have announced their intentions to enter the NFL Draft. Sophomore edge rusher Gilber Edmund has entered the transfer portal.
South Carolina will have dynamic junior quarterback Spencer Rattler, who has completed 235 of 352 passes for 2,780 yards with 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Against Tennessee and Clemson, Rattler completed a combined 55 of 76 attempts for 798 yards with eight touchdowns and two interceptions.
In the backfield, sophomore Juju McDowell and senior Christian Beal-Smith will be the Gamecocks’ main backfield threats. McDowell is a scatback runner, while Beal-Smith is a bulldozer fullback.
Junior Antwane “Juice” Wells has emerged as a deep threat and playmaker. He has caught 63 balls for 898 yards. Rattler can also look to seniors Dakereon Joyner, Ahmarean Brown, and Xavier Legette.
Like South Carolina, Notre Dame won’t have Pyne along with sophomore tight end and prime target Michael Mayer (67-809-9 touchdowns), who both entered the transfer portal.
Buchner will be back under center for Notre Dame, which has nearly 2,000 yards on the ground. Sophomore Audric Estime is the top back from a consistent four-back rotation all season with 825 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Without key personnel on both sides of the ball on both sidelines, the game may lose some of its luster. Yet again, these are two teams that want to close the season on a high note to help lay some more groundwork for next season. Whatever the outcome, the overall crowd certainly will create a playoff-like atmosphere.
It should be another fun, football day in Jacksonville. Sometimes, you don’t need a stacked hand to have a good hand.
(Columnist Jeff Moeller covers the NFL, college football and other sports for SportsDay and the Florida Sports Wire.)