Gamecocks, Cavaliers meet for the first time in 15 years
As former ACC rivals, South Carolina and Virginia have quite a bit of shared history but their Belk Bowl matchup will not just be their first meeting in 15 years but also the first time the two have met in the postseason.
South Carolina (7-5) ended the regular season with a 28-3 victory over Akron in a makeup game due to an early cancellation (vs. Marshall) caused by Hurricane Florence. Now the Gamecocks look for a second straight bowl victory, this one being played 90 minutes from their campus.
Virginia (7-5) finished with an identical record, but the Cavaliers enter this game having lost two straight. In their regular-season finale, Virginia fell to archrival Virginia Tech 34-31 in overtime, their 15th straight loss to the Hokies.
Both members of the ACC from 1953-71, South Carolina and Virginia have played each other 34 times. The Gamecocks hold a 21-12-1 and won the most recent matchup, beating the Cavaliers 31-7 in Columbia in 2003.
Belk Bowl: South Carolina (7-5) vs. Virginia (7-5)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 29 at 12 p.m. ET
Where: Bank of America Stadium (Charlotte, N.C.)
Spread: South Carolina -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Jake Bentley
Bentley is one of the nation's most underrated quarterbacks. He will have another opportunity to showcase his skills and talent on a national stage against Virginia.
Bentley threw for 2,953 this year, becoming just the fourth player in Gamecocks history to surpass 7,000 career passing yards. He struggled earlier this season, but Bentley rounded into form after dealing with an injury.
In the first four games of the year, he averaged 232 passing yards per game with seven touchdowns and six interceptions. After he missed the Missouri game due to a knee injury, Bentley returned to average 289 yards per game with 20 touchdowns and six interceptions over the final seven regular season games.
Virginia fared well against the pass, ranking 14th at 180.1 passing yards per game allowed with more interceptions (15) than touchdown passes (12). It will be interesting to see how this in-game matchup develops.
2. Jordan Ellis
The key for the Cavaliers' offense will be Ellis, who has been consistent all season long. The senior rushed for 920 yards with nine touchdowns in the regular season. However, Ellis had only three 100-yard games this season, and all of those came against non-Power 5 opponents.
South Carolina's rushing defense is among the bottom of the FBS. The Gamecocks are giving up an average of 194.5 yards per game on the ground.
If Ellis cannot get anything going on the ground, it is hard envisioning quarterback Bryce Perkins having success throwing the football against a South Carolina defense that has surrendered just nine touchdown passes (tied for fourth fewest) in 12 games.
3. How will the Gamecocks replace missing players?
Not only will South Carolina be without two defensive starters against Virginia, the Gamecocks won't have their leading receiver either.
Deebo Samuel will skip the Belk Bowl and focus on preparing for the 2019 NFL Draft. The 6-foot, 210-pounder leads South Carolina with 62 catches for 882 yards and 11 touchdowns.
The Gamecocks also will be without junior defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw and senior cornerback Keisean Nixon. Kinlaw recently had surgery to repair a labral tear in his hip. He posted 38 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and five pass breakups in 12 games.
Nixon has a fracture in his neck, which was discovered by a CAT scan after the game against Akron. He is fourth on the team in tackles with 63.
How South Carolina can replace these key players, remains to be seen.
The Belk Bowl should be entertaining as both South Carolina and Virginia has enough talent to win this game. The most significant factor in this game will be Jake Bentley.
The Gamecocks' quarterback has been playing excellent during the final month of the season, and there's no reason that shouldn't continue against a Cavaliers defense that gave up 34 points in its last game to a Virginia Tech offense that was mediocre at times this season.
Although this should be a good game, expect the Gamecocks to pull it out in the end.
Prediction: South Carolina 34, Virginia 27
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.