South Carolina is one victory away from the winningest season in its history. To achieve that, the Gamecocks will need to overcome one of college football's most storied programs - and one neither they nor their coach have defeated.
Tenth-ranked South Carolina takes a stifling defense and an up-and-coming quarterback into Orlando on Monday to face No. 21 Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl.
Steve Spurrier's teams have never posted a losing record since he became coach at South Carolina in 2005, and he has taken the program to new heights in his seventh year. The Gamecocks (10-2) have matched the 1984 team for the most wins in the 118-year history of the program, finished SEC play with a school-best 6-2 record and defeated all five of their East Division rivals.
To break the 1984 team's mark, South Carolina will have to overcome its recent history in postseason play. After defeating Houston in the 2006 Liberty Bowl and finishing out of the bowl picture the following year, the Gamecocks have dropped three straight bowls. They lost 26-17 to Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Bowl last season.
"Since I've been here, we haven't won a bowl game and so we're trying to go out and change that, got out and get that 11th win and make history,'' defensive end Melvin Ingram said.
The Gamecocks have never beaten the Cornhuskers (9-3), losing all three meetings - the most recent coming in a home-and-home series in 1986 and '87. Neither has Spurrier, whose No. 2 Florida team fell to Nebraska 62-24 in a 1996 Fiesta Bowl that decided the national championship.
Spurrier would guide the Gators to a national title of their own the following year - the pinnacle of his tenure in Gainesville that was best known for his high-flying "Fun-n-Gun" offense. His current team is winning in a much different fashion, averaging nearly 200 rushing yards per game and sporting a defense that ranks fourth nationally at 268.9 yards per game and second against the pass at 133.0.
"There's nothing wrong with the way we're playing, if you can run the ball decently, you got a chance to score some points and you got a defense like we got,'' Spurrier said.
The heart of that defense is Ingram, who led South Carolina with 8 1/2 sacks, had two interceptions despite playing on the line, rumbled 68 yards for a touchdown on a fake punt against Georgia in September, and earned first-team All-American honors.
"We're going to work hard every play,'' Ingram said.
While Ingram figures to be playing on Sundays next fall, quarterback Connor Shaw may to be in Columbia a while longer. The sophomore claimed the starting job in October and played his best down the stretch, completing 30 of 38 passes over his last two games. He went 14 for 20 with three touchdown passes, 107 rushing yards and a TD run in a 34-13 win over archrival Clemson to conclude the regular season.
"I feel like my confidence is boosting game by game the more I play,'' Shaw said. "I have a better feel for the game and am starting to see the bigger picture.''
Nebraska may not be entering this matchup with sky-high confidence after losing two of its last four games, but the Cornhuskers did manage a successful inaugural season in the Big Ten - highlighted by a 24-3 victory over then-No. 9 Michigan State in October - and have a shot for their third straight 10-win campaign.
"It's the ultimate goal right now,'' offensive lineman Jeremiah Sirles said. "If we're not competing for the championship, we want to go out and have as many wins as possible. We have a chance at 30 wins in three seasons, and that's pretty special.''
Nebraska also has a chance to erase its unpleasant bowl memories from last year, when - still smarting over a loss in the Big 12 title game - it got sent to the Holiday Bowl for a second straight year and gave a lackluster performance in a 19-7 defeat to Washington.
"Of course there's going to be a different attitude,'' first-team All-American senior linebacker Lavonte David said. "Last year we played in the same bowl game two years in a row and played the same team we played already. This year we get a better opportunity, a better bowl game, a much tougher team, an SEC team. The guys are already pumped up.''
Like South Carolina, Nebraska's offense is powered by the ground game. The Huskers ranked 13th in the nation this season with 223.9 rushing yards per game, with running back Rex Burkhead and quarterback Taylor Martinez combining to rush for 200 or more five times.
Burkhead, a junior, ran for career highs of 1,268 yards and 15 touchdowns. He was a workhorse in the Nov. 25 regular-season finale, amassing 160 yards and a score on 38 carries to lead Nebraska over Iowa 20-7.
Martinez ran for nine TDs - all in the season's first six games. However, the sophomore threw the ball reliably down the stretch, completing 57.4 percent of his passes with four TDs and no interceptions in four November contests.
"I appreciate the effort those guys gave out there,'' coach Bo Pelini said. "I think our resolve was something special. I loved the approach our football team has. They had a never-say-die attitude.''
This is the first time Nebraska has faced an opponent from the SEC since a 17-14 loss to Auburn in the Cotton Bowl following the 2006 season.
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