Orlando, FL (SportsNetwork.com) - A New Year's Day tradition continues on Wednesday afternoon, as the 19th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers and the eighth- ranked South Carolina Gamecocks square off in the 68th annual Capital One Bowl at Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium.
Wisconsin has established itself as one of the nation's most consistent teams of the 21st century with 12 consecutive bowl appearances, including three straight Rose Bowl bids from 2010-12. In Gary Anderson's first season as head coach, the Badgers actually improved upon 2012's ledger (8-6) by going 9-3 (6-2 in the Big Ten), although they closed out the regular season on a down note with a 31-24 home loss to Penn State.
"I think we all strive at the beginning of the year and fight through the year to get a BCS game, (but) that's a very difficult to do," Anderson said. "We won a bunch of football games. We've got nine wins and now we're going to go play a team with 10 wins. It's a tremendous matchup...We're just honored to be part of it and we're excited we could get this team to this point."
Once a favorite to win the SEC Eastern Division, South Carolina stumbled early with a Sept. 7 loss at Georgia (41-30) to fall out of the national spotlight. From there however, the Gamecocks were nothing short of outstanding, winning nine of 10 to close out the campaign, including five in a row at the end. They have now won double-digit games in three straight seasons and have earned a bowl bid in eight of Steve Spurrier's nine campaigns as head coach.
"We've got to play well if we expect to beat Wisconsin," Spurrier said. "They are a very good team. I think they're favored over us, so I guess if we beat them, it will be an upset. Our guys practiced pretty well back in Columbia and we hope to have some good practices here (in Orlando).
This marks the first-ever meeting between the Badgers and the Gamecocks on the football field.
Wisconsin's offense this season has been a potent one, boasting 35.8 points per game thanks largely to the nation's eighth-ranked rushing attack (283.0 ypg).
The two-headed monster in the backfield consists of Melvin Gordon (1,466 yards, 12 TDs) and James White (1,337 yards, 13 TDs), and the Badgers are the only team in FBS to have a pair of running backs averaging at least 100 rushing yards per game. This will mark White's final game of his senior season, but Gordon, who averaged an incredible 8.1 yards per carry, announced that he will be returning in 2014.
"With this decision out of the way I can now focus on helping my team prepare for the Capital One Bowl and a great opponent in South Carolina," Gordon said after he announced he would not enter May's NFL Draft.
With such a reliable running game, quarterback Joel Stave isn't asked to do much, although he's been mostly productive by completing 61.6 percent of his passes for 2,414 yards and 20 touchdowns. On the other hand, his 12 interceptions are tied for second-most in the Big Ten.
Stave has been locked in on Jared Abbrederis all season long. The receiver was a First Team All-Big Ten selection after tallying 73 receptions, 1,051 yards and seven touchdowns, giving the team a 1,000-yard receiver and two 1,000-yard rushers for the first time in school history. White is the team's next-leading receiver (37 receptions, 292 yards, two TDs).
While the offense has shined on the campaign, the Badgers have risen to great heights thanks mostly to their outstanding defense, which ranks fifth nationally in scoring defense (14.8 ppg) and sixth in total defense (294.0 ypg).
Leading the unit is First Team All-American linebacker Chris Borland, who has racked up 102 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 4.0 sacks and two fumble recoveries. Sojour Shelton paces the secondary with four interceptions and 11 passes defended, while Michael Caputo (62 tackles) and Brendan Kelly (7.0 TFL, 4.5 sacks, three FF) are also defensive standouts.
Although the Gamecocks were rarely flashy on offense, they displayed consistent production all season long, racking up 34.1 points and 453.5 yards per game.
Leading the attack is Connor Shaw, who is one of the nation's most efficient quarterbacks. Despite fighting through several nagging injuries, the senior did not miss a game and completed 61 percent of his passes for 2,135 yards with 21 touchdowns paired with just a single interception. He's also a big factor with his legs, picking up an additional 511 rushing yards and five scores.
Joining Shaw in the backfield is Mike Davis, who is a true workhorse with 194 carries for 1,134 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Bruce Ellington is the top target out wide with 43 receptions, 635 yards and six touchdowns, and he might see additional targets in this one with Damiere Byrd (33 receptions, 575 yards, four TDs) sidelined with a knee injury.
"We've got everybody healthy except Damiere Byrd," Spurrier said. "We'll miss Damiere. He's our deep-threat, long-ball guy. Hopefully one of our other players will step forward and maybe catch a long one before the day is over."
While South Carolina's defense may not be as stout as Wisconsin's, it has nonetheless played very well, allowing only 20.0 points and 345.0 yards per game, while generating 26 takeaways.
Jadeveon Clowney came into the season with sky-high expectations but fell short of immeasurable hype with a disappointing season (3.0 sacks). Kelcy Quarles was able to take advantage of the extra attention teams paid to Clowney by racking up 13.5 TFL and 9.5 sacks. Jimmy Legree, Victor Hampton and T.J. Holloman have picked off three passes apiece, while Skai Moore has a team-best 51 tackles.