One of the fun things about bowl season is the match-ups between different conferences. When the ACC and SEC get together it adds a little more spice to the game because the schools and fans of the teams are usually in close proximity. The Belk Bowl will kick off in Charlotte on Saturday with the South Carolina Gamecocks taking on the Virginia Cavaliers. Each team comes into the game at 7-5 on the season. However, they both have different feelings about how their seasons have transpired.
The Cavaliers are in their second straight bowl game and have secured the program’s first winning season since 2011. The Gamecocks failed to meet expectations in 2018 after winning nine games last year. They each have a chance to get their eighth victory and head into the offseason on a high note. The two teams come in on different streaks, with Virginia losing three of its last four, and South Carolina has won four of its last six. With each team standing at 7-5, it shows that they both lack a semblance of consistency which makes predicting this game difficult.
Belk Bowl Breakdown
Players to Watch
Shi Smith – South Carolina Gamecocks – Wide Receiver
The sophomore receiver has been a solid play-maker his two seasons in Columbia. Smith has 39 catches for 597 yards and four scores on the year. He has shown the ability to be a reliable possession receiver out of the slot and as a deep threat in the Gamecocks downfield passing game. Star Deebo Samuel is sitting out the bowl game so Smith could see his role increased for this match-up.
Juan Thornhill – Virginia Cavaliers – Safety
The senior from Altavista, Virginia will be playing his last game for the Cavaliers on Saturday. Thornhill leads the team in tackles with 92. He also leads Virginia with five interceptions, giving him 12 for his career. His six passes defended are only sixth on the team, which shows just how active this secondary is. Thornhill was a 1st team All-ACC selection this season.
While the season has not gone according to plan in 2018, an eighth victory in the bowl would still count as solid progress for Will Muschamp. South Carolina struggled on offense during the first half of the season. Inconsistencies and turnovers hampered this team as they were 3-3 through their first six games. The offense picked things up after the bye week, averaging 36 points a game in the final six contests. Quarterback Jake Bentley played extremely well down the stretch, completing over 70% of his passes with 17 touchdowns in that second half of the year. The deep ball became a huge factor for the Gamecocks, with Bryan Edwards, Samuel, and Smith all helping to stretch the field. Bentley will need to be careful though. His early season struggles were partially due to interceptions, and Virginia has a very active and opportunistic secondary.
Unfortunately for South Carolina, just as their offense got going, the defense became a mash unit. Injuries hit that side of the ball hard late in the season, forcing 13 players off the early season depth chart to miss games. Coach Muschamp was forced to play a lot of first-year guys in the trenches and in the secondary, and the Gamecocks’ defense suffered. With a few weeks to regroup, the young defense could come out with a renewed energy and production level for the Belk Bowl.
Senior Bryson Allen-Williams, junior Keir Thomas, and freshman Jaycee Horn will all return after missing the last few games. Their experience and talent should bolster things on the defensive side of the ball. The Belk Bowl will be the first of two straight games in Charlotte for the Gamecocks, as they open 2019 in Bank of America Stadium with the North Carolina Tarheels.
Virginia has made good progress in coach Bronco Mendenhall’s first three seasons in Charlottesville. The Cavaliers are in their second straight bowl game and have secured their first winning season since 2011. Their strength is in their secondary. They have intercepted 15 passes this season, and have 58 passes defended. The match-up with South Carolina’s explosive passing game will be the key to the Belk Bowl. Virginia is only allowing 53% completion rate and 180 yards through the air a game. Thornhill and corner Bryce Hall are both 1st team All-ACC performers. Defensive end Chris Peace leads the team with six of their 22 total sacks. The defense does allow 157 yards a game and 4.5 yards a carry on the ground.
Quarterback Bryce Perkins has 2,472 yards through the air this season and is second on the team with 842 yards rushing. The Cavaliers are a ball control offense that looks to capitalize on the mistakes its defense forces from opponents. They have only scored more than 28 points twice against power five competition on the season. Senior tailback Jordan Ellis has 920 yards rushing and nine touchdowns in twelve games. Virginia leans heavily on their rushing attack. Senior Olamide Zaccheaus is closing in on a 1,000 receiving season, with 973 yards on 82 catches. No other Cavalier has more than 47 catches or 520 yards.
Strength vs Strength
This game will likely come down to which team can impose their will. South Carolina will look to use tempo and explosive plays to make this game a shootout. If they can hit on some deep plays and score early, Virginia may have trouble keeping up. The Gamecocks will also need to establish their running game to keep things balanced. If Bentley struggles, the Cavalier secondary will make him pay. They will look to force turnovers in order to set their offense up with short fields.
Virginia will try to run the ball at and around a Gamecocks defense that was woeful down the stretch. If they can get both Perkins and Ellis going on the ground they could make it a long day for their SEC foe. South Carolina will hope that the return of a few injured defenders will strengthen a unit that was beaten up and beaten down over the final few games. The Belk Bowl should be a closely contested affair. Both teams have deficiencies for the other to take advantage of, and both will need to play to their strengths to get their eighth win of the season.