Make no mistake, the Capital One Bowl is a big game for Gary Andersen. The Badgers' first-year football coach was enjoying a nice honeymoon in Madison until the season finale at Camp Randall, when UW looked listless and sloppy in a loss to Penn State. A victory on New Year's Day in Orlando would give the Badgers another 10-win season and some bragging rights for the Big 10 against the big bad SEC. A loss would give critics fuel to wonder what exactly Andersen accomplished this fall with an inherited roster full of talent.
On paper, the Capital One looks like South Carolina's to lose. The Gamecocks had a better season than the Badgers in a decidedly tougher league. Carolina had three wins this year against currently ranked teams, while Wisconsin is still looking for its first. After years of mediocrity in the Southeastern Conference, the Gamecocks have quietly become a legitimate power and settled into an impressive rut. They're seeking their third consecutive 11-2 season, a third straight Top 10 finish and a third straight bowl victory over the Big 10.
The lack of a signature win this year could give the Badgers a motivational edge on New Year's Day. Maybe they need one -- UW fans have been slow to purchase their allotment of tickets in Orlando, and although the Cap One is usually an attractive match-up, it ain't the Rose Bowl.
Anyway, Wisconsin's 9-3 record doesn't stand up to much scrutiny. The Badgers won the games they were supposed to win, with the notable exception of Penn State. They were in position to beat Arizona State, the third-best team in the solid Pac-12, until an officiating meltdown cost them a chance at a winning field goal. They rallied late in Columbus to lose by a touchdown to Ohio State, the best team the Badgers played.
South Carolina could be the equal of the Buckeyes, despite near-constant overshadowing by the Alabamas, Auburns and Johnny Footballs of the SEC. Connor Shaw became one of the most efficient quarterbacks in college footfall this season, with 21 touchdown passes against only one interception, and 500 yards rushing. Sophomore running back Mike Davis ran for more than 1,100 yards, though he was slowed by injuries in the final five games.
On defense, the Gamecocks feature All-American tackle Kelcy Quarles and junior end Jadeveon Clowney, who became a national celebrity after blowing up Michigan's Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl last New Year's Day. Both linemen have indicated they'll leave school early for the NFL draft; Clowney could very well be the top overall pick.
Most teams intended to deal with Clowney this year by double-teaming or simply running away from him, but Quarles' emergence in the middle eliminated that luxury.
As with almost every game the Badgers have played since Barry Alvarez arrived from Notre Dame, their ability to beat South Carolina likely hinges on their ability to run the football, and you've deduced by now that running might not be easy against the Gamecocks. They're 32nd in college football in rushing defense, which is good but not great. However, the Badgers are 1-3 this season against Top 40 rushing defenses.
If the Badgers can't move consistently on the ground, sophomore quarterback Joel Stave will need to shake off his season-long inconsistency and have a good day throwing the football. I'm more of a Stave fan than a lot of man-room geniuses around here, but their essential critique of him is correct. Sooner or later UW needs to win a big game on the strength of Stave's right arm, and so far it hasn't.