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For Gamecocks, bowl eligibility would be a big step back toward respectability

November 15, 2016 GMT

COLUMBIA — In his three previous seasons at South Carolina, Jonathan Walton has made a pair of bowl trips. The linebacker went to Tampa, Fla., as a freshman, to Shreveport, La., as a sophomore — and he wants one more postseason foray before his career with the Gamecocks comes to a close.

“We know what it’s like to go on these bowl trips,” Walton said. “For the older guys, we’d love to experience that again. The seniors, we’d love to experience that before we leave.”

Bowl trips once seemed a foregone conclusion at USC, where in the glory days under former head coach Steve Spurrier it was just a matter of which locale to choose from. In 10 full seasons under the Head Ball Coach, the Gamecocks went bowling nine times, winning five of them — including the last four in a row. Annual postseason trips were as much part of the USC program as Cocky or “2001.”

All of which makes Saturday’s 4 p.m. game a significant one, even though it’s against an FCS opponent in Western Carolina. After cratering to 3-9 last season and going bowl-less for the first time since 2007, the Gamecocks (5-5) stand one victory from securing postseason eligibility in their first season under head coach Will Muschamp.

“To be bowl-eligible in Williams-Brice Stadium is a big thing,” said senior safety Chris Moody.

For a program that experienced an unexpected decline, it would also be a big step back toward respectability. “Nobody thought we could get to six wins this year,” said junior linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams. “And for us to get to six wins, on senior night, that’s a big accomplishment for this group.”

First USC will have to take care of business against the Catamounts (2-8), who are 0-51 all-time against FBS opponents, and beaten 49-21 last weekend by Furman. Bowl projections have USC potentially headed anywhere from Birmingham, Ala., to Charlotte to Houston, but postseason destinations won’t be known until Dec. 4, the day after the conference championship games.

The SEC assigns schools to bowls in Charlotte, Houston, Memphis and Nashville, Tenn., and Tampa and Jacksonville, Fla., with games in Shreveport La., and Birmingham selecting after that. Players get a trip, ideally to someplace with warm weather and an NFL stadium. Coaches get an additional three weeks of practice — no small detail for a team like South Carolina, which is loaded with underclassmen.

“I think it’s always important with any team, but especially with a very young team, to have opportunities to have extra practices. Football is a developmental game. It’s not like basketball where you can pick up and go one-on-one in the backyard and improve. That’s just not the way football is,” Muschamp said Tuesday at his weekly news conference.

“You can’t go sit in the batting cage and take batting practice on your own. That’s just not the way football is. Football is a game. You’ve got to go play the game. We need to be able to have these practices to help continue to develop our roster and the youth of our roster.”

USC’s freshman-laden roster came of age after an open week at which the Gamecocks stood 2-4. “There were a lot of doubts about our program,” Allen-Williams said of that time. South Carolina responded with a three-game winning streak that has it on the cusp of bowl eligibility with two games remaining.

“I am proud. I already knew we had the ability,” said junior safety D.J. Smith. “... This team could go to a bowl game every year. We’ve got the athletes, we’ve got the players. It’s a matter of us finishing the games we play in.”

Getting there this season takes finishing off a victory over an FCS opponent, against which the Gamecocks are 9-1 since they began hosting them annually in 2006. The lone loss during that stretch came to The Citadel in last season’s bowl-less campaign.

“This is for a bowl game. We’ve got a chance to go to a bowl game if we play them and come out victorious? That’s huge,” said senior left tackle Mason Zandi. “Not going to one? That’s for the birds. I’m not watching bowl games at my house.”