The Cotton Bowl has targeted South Carolina to potentially fill its SEC-affiliated slot, an abnormal possibility for a bowl that has invited eight straight SEC West programs.

Rick Baker, the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic President and CEO, told The Post and Courier on Monday that his bowl would take “a good, hard look” at South Carolina if it were available. No invitation has been extended, and South Carolina may be selected before the Cotton Bowl has a chance.

No. 10 South Carolina hosts No. 6 Clemson at 7 p.m. Saturday on ESPN2. The first top-10 matchup between the two rivals has demanded attention across the country, reaching all the way to Baker in Arlington, Texas.

Baker said his bowl isn’t worried about a 15-hour distance from Columbia. The Cotton Bowl would like to host Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier for the first time. It is also interested in developing relationships with a new SEC fan base, and the marketing possibility South Carolina could hold for a national audience.

“We would be very excited and very proud to have the chance to have South Carolina,” Baker said. “We’ve never had South Carolina here. We’ve never had coach Spurrier here, and we certainly know about the great fans of South Carolina and how well they travel, how great fans they are for their Gamecocks.”

The Cotton Bowl Classic matches an SEC team against a Big 12 opponent. It will kick off 8 p.m. Jan. 3 at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Baker said his bowl has narrowed its Big 12 search to four teams: Oklahoma State, Baylor, Oklahoma and Texas.

Tennessee was the last SEC East team to play in the Cotton Bowl Classic, beating Texas A&M 38-7 on Jan. 1, 2005. The Gamecocks have never played a bowl game in Texas.

Baker has ties to the state of South Carolina. He was a minor league pitcher in Charleston during the early 1980s, back when he went by Ricky. He also knows the university well. Baker said he had a good relationship with former athletics director Eric Hyman, who he knew from Hyman’s previous stint at Texas Christian University.

“We have always from afar really watched South Carolina very carefully,” Baker said.

“There were several years there where we thought we might have a chance, and we certainly communicated with Mr. Hyman during that time.”

Baker’s interest in hosting South Carolina doesn’t mean an invitation is pending. There are too many pieces in play, too many potential scenarios to work out. One bowl CEO with ties to the SEC called South Carolina’s possibilities a “tangled web.”

Wide range of possibilities

Spurrier said last week he doesn’t mind where his team plays in a bowl. He’ll go wherever USC is invited.

The Gamecocks could clinch their first Sugar Bowl bid in program history with an SEC championship game victory, though it needs Missouri to lose to Texas A&M this week to have any chance of playing for the title in Atlanta.

Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan declined an interview request through director of media relations and communications John Sudsbury.

“We will extensively review every available team that is eligible to be selected for our bowl,” Sudsbury emailed The Post and Courier last week.

With Alabama and Auburn ranked in the top five of this week’s BCS rankings, it’s unlikely South Carolina would receive a BCS invitation as an at-large bid. The Capital One Bowl in Orlando receives the first selection after the BCS process is complete, followed by the Outback Bowl and Cotton Bowl.

The Outback Bowl gets the first selection of SEC East teams, while the Cotton Bowl gets dibs on SEC West teams, according to the SEC’s bowl contract.

It could be hard for the Capital One or Outback to pass on inviting South Carolina. Capital One Bowl CEO Steve Hogan called the Gamecocks a “big draw,” something that fits his bowl’s needs. Slotted on New Year’s Day, leading into the Rose Bowl kickoff on ABC, Hogan said it’s important to provide the nation a quality matchup.

Hogan said a win this week over Clemson would be advantageous in two ways. First, 10-win teams are always attractive, especially in the SEC. Beyond that, having a marquee victory late in the season could keep USC high in the pecking order, even if it misses the BCS.

“For consideration for the Capital One Bowl, I don’t want to say that at 9-3 they’re out of contention for us, because that’s not true,” Hogan said. “We may well have a 9-3 team this year, but to be a 10-win team ranked that high with a win over Clemson would be a heck of an important factor.”

A loss to Clemson this week could lower South Carolina’s bowl prospects, but it would still be in line for an attractive bowl destination.

The Gamecocks are unlikely to fall below the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Gary Stokan, the Chick-fil-A Bowl president and CEO, told The Post and Courier the Gamecocks would be a “Godsend” for his game.

“With an easy trip to Atlanta, they would make a lot of sense for us in the Chick-fil-A Bowl,” Stokan said.

“I think they’re probably headed to a bowl above us, but we would certainly be pleased to have the opportunity to select them.”

Something new

Baker has had close calls with South Carolina before. He’s seen opportunities slip through.

This year, he believes things could be different for the Cotton Bowl.

Baker said geography could actually be a benefit, not a hindrance. The Gamecocks have played nine bowl games since 2001. Five were located in Florida, with another coming in Atlanta. Last season, USC traveled to Tampa Bay for the Outback Bowl. In 2011, it played in Orlando.

Baker knows the Cotton Bowl’s chances of having South Carolina as an option largely rests on what the Outback Bowl chooses, just as they have in the past. Outback Bowl CEO Jim McVay has invited South Carolina four times since 2001.

Baker wonders if it’s time for a change of scenery.

“Certainly Jim McVay and the Outback has every right to take them, but they’ve had them several times over the last few years,” Baker said. “So, it just seems like we have more of a chance. It may not be the perfect scenario, but it just seems like we have more of a chance that they would still be available by the time we picked. And, if they are, we would certainly take a good, hard look at them.”

McVay didn’t discourage the chance of inviting South Carolina for a second straight year, saying his bowl has repeated invitations in the past. Most notably, the Gamecocks played Ohio State in the 2001 and 2002 Outback Bowls, winning both games.

McVay would not speculate on potential scenarios with his bowl, but acknowledged there are several options.

“They’re just one of those teams that everybody has them on their board,” McVay told The Post and Courier. “It’s up to them. South Carolina will determine where they go.”

Everybody is interested, including a bowl that hasn’t taken an SEC East team in almost a decade.

The Gamecocks to the Cotton Bowl? It’s not as strange as it may sound, at least not to Baker. He’s followed the program for years, waiting for an opportunity.

He knows this may be it.

“We’ve certainly watched South Carolina this year,” Baker said. “We’ll certainly continue to watch them. They’ve got a big game this week, and then possibly a championship game. There’s a lot of games yet to be played, a lot of things to fall into place, but we are certainly keeping our eye on South Carolina.”