Let’s get the niggling question out of the way first. For those of you who’ve never been to North Carolina, Belk is the region’s classy department store. It’s the Macy’s of the Carolinas [my slogan, not theirs] and even sponsored the Charlotte Thanksgiving Day Parade until 2013.
I google way too much.
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Anyway, minds at ease, we can now turn to important matters, namely football.
South Carolina and Virginia come to town with largely identical records but distinctly different squads. Both are 7-5 Straight Up and Over/Under. Each is 4-4 SU in Southeastern and Atlantic Coast Conference play respectively. The Cavaliers are one game better [8-4] Against The Spread and SU at home [6-1]. The Gamecocks boast two SU wins on the road to their opponent’s one.
The big differences lie in how each school arrived at their similar records.
Although South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp appears to have followed another former Florida Gators coach’s trail from Gainesville to Columbia and the Gamecocks are a pass-happy offence in the proud Steve Spurrier tradition, he comes to the top job from the defensive side of the ball. That is a problem for South Carolina, who gave up nearly as many points per game [27.2] as they scored [32.6].
Meanwhile, Bronco Mendenhall’s team play the type of football their coach’s name suggests. Smashmouth. Junior quarterback Bryce Perkins, who sat out two seasons in transferring from Arizona State, isn’t afraid to throw the ball but the Cavaliers boast two players in the backfield who threatened 1,000 yards in 2018. Running back Jordan Ellis put up 920 yards on 189 carries for a solid 4.9 yards per rush. Perkins himself added another 842 with a 4.3yd average. Each ran it into the end zone nine times.
South Carolina QB Jake Bentley lets his arm do the yard work. He has three rushers to leg it out. Rico Dowdle [638yds, 4TDs], Mon Denson [415yds, 2TDs] and Tyson Williams [319yds, 4TDs] do their share but the junior signal-caller passed for 2953 yards and 27 touchdowns, this season, albeit with 12 interceptions. His favourite target is Deebo Samuel who racked up 882yds on 62 receptions for 11 TDs.
Unfortunately for Bentley and the Gamecocks, Samuel elected to skip the bowl to prepare for the NFL draft. Without him, the 35 points Muschamp’s offence put up in defeat to Clemson loses significance. Bryan Edwards caught 52 balls for seven scores and 809yds. He must pick up the slack. Third back in the rotation, Williams is questionable as he rehabs a broken hand.
Virginia’s defence loves a quarterback who stays in the pocket. Senior safety Juan Thornhill has five picks, benefitting from linebacker Chris Peace’s ability to pressure the quarterback. Peace, also a senior, banked six sacks in 2018. As a team, the Cavaliers have 15 INTs and 22 sacks.
South Carolina’s aerial attack v Virginia’s pass defence is the key matchup in the Belk Bowl. Samuel’s absence could be critical. Bowl games are notoriously unpredictable, though, because both teams lose their momentum [or inertia] with several weeks off. Bentley has had all the time in the world to work with other receivers.
Trends conflict. South Carolina is 4-0 ATS v winning teams and in their past four bowls. Nominally the visiting team, they’re giving away four points in the Line. Virginia is 5-0 O/U in their previous bowl games with the Total in this one at 54. The teams haven’t met since 2003.
Overall, you must look at Virginia’s voracious pass defence and South Carolina’s undermanned receiving corps. It’s tempting to bet the Under but this looks like Virginia’s game to lose.
Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.