ORLANDO, Fla. - No. 8 South Carolina has been in Florida for six days now, and several things are abundantly clear about the Gamecocks as their preparations for tomorrow's game against No. 19 Wisconsin are at a close.
In no particular order, here are my takeaways from a week in Orlando watching this team closely, first-hand.
This team is confident, not cocky. Maybe it was the early humbling loss to Georgia followed by the mid-season torpedo in Knoxville. Or maybe it was the fact that a team with what's believed to be the smallest senior class in school history simply lacked enough big-time upperclassmen to develop a a cocky personality. Perhaps it was because the team's leadership, Connor Shaw first among them, never set a tone anything other than businesslike.
Connor Shaw is dialed-in. I'm on the fence about whether it was a good decision or a bad one - I'm leaning toward the latter, but for my own media-related reasons - but Shaw has refused all interviews since getting to Orlando. I take that to mean he's dialed-in and focused hard on the task at-hand, which is adding one more large "W" to his school-record winning total. He is the key to this bowl game, make no mistake, and he has the undivided attention of Wisconsin's entire team and coaching staff.
I have a feeling Shaw is going to have his best game tomorrow and will not let anything stand in the way of his doing so. His leadership, work ethic and toughness have been cited so often this week by his teammates and the coaching staff that I think there's no way he doesn't go out in a blaze of glory fans will remember for a long, long time.
Whatever the reasons, this team slowly built a quiet confidence in itself bolstered slowly, week after week, crystallizing in the Missouri game and snowballing through the rest of the season. They take nothing for granted nor have a false sense of themselves. They know they're good, they take Wisconsin seriously and they're eager to prove one more time what they're all about.
Las Vegas did the Gamecocks a huge favor. So often in bowl scenarios we see a more highly rated team fall to an underdog because either the superior team didn't want to be in the bowl they're in (LSU last year), had a ton of players looking ahead to the NFL (LSU last year) or simply mailed it in from a coaching standpoint for reasons known only to them (LSU last year).
If South Carolina was in danger of that happening, Las Vegas took that right out of play when it immediately installed the Badgers as the favorite. The South Carolina players have taken notice, and at yesterday's press conference senior defensive end Chaz Sutton couldn't wait to jump on the question and express his strong opinions about the perceived slight, calling it an outright "slap in the face."
Which it is, and for that, Gamecock fans should be grateful.
Shawn Elliott is excited. I like Shawn Elliott. A lot. Talking to him at length, I get the impression he's chomping at the bit to loose his line on a Wisconsin team that likely hasn't seen one as athletic or fast. He had nothing but glowing words for Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland, but behind that smile was the look of a coach who knows something, sees something, can't wait to exploit something. It's just a hunch, but I've gotten to know Elliott a little bit in conversations throughout the year and he's priming his group - look no further than his milking the center competition to the last minute - to excel. The line hasn't been any healthier or better this season than it is right now, and Elliott knows it.
Kelcy Quarles is ready. Beyond Jadeveon Clowney, whose motivation level we'll soon see, I have no reservations whatsoever in saying Quarles will give everything he possibly has and more tomorrow against the Badgers. He's a Gamecock through and through and cannot wait to jam up the inside of Wisconsin's line and wreak havoc with his sensational combination of size, strength and speed. I believe he, not Clowney, will be the deciding force on the line that shuts down Wisconsin's rushing attack.
Mike Davis is healthy. If I had to put a finger on why Mike Davis' numbers declined the way they did the last few games of the season, I'd say it had more to do with his being more injured than he let on - especially the rib area - than issues with the offensive line, though there were those, or that teams were scheming more for him than before, which they were.
I think he's as healthy now as he's been in more than a month, and there's no question he's healthier and more motivated than he's been in a while to show he's the same elite back he showed in the season's first half.
Bruce Ellington wants more. If there's another player as motivated as Davis and Shaw and Quarles, it's Ellington. It was interesting to learn this week just how much it seems he wants to leave for the NFL after this year, but it's also understandable in the sense that it's difficult to see your fellow teammates - Quarles, Clowney, Victor Hampton, etc. - all aglow with NFL excitement and not want to join that party, especially when you've already graduated.
What I think that means for USC is that he wants more than anything to have an Ace Sanders-like performance tomorrow and show out. Of course, showing out in big games is what Ellington is known for from a big-play perspective, but if he truly wants to play in the NFL one day he'll need to be more of a consistent threat than he's been. I happen to believe that interest is best served by coming back next year when he'll have a throwing-first quarterback in Dylan Thompson to boost his numbers, but one never knows what information athletes choose to believe sometimes, especially when it comes to the NFL.
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