COLUMBIA - Steve Spurrier believes a bowl game is a reward. It should feel like a treat, special and memorable, one last triumph before the offseason.
There were perhaps more enticing rewards within South Carolina's grasp this bowl season. Destinations more unique than the status quo. Fans wanted a trip to Dallas for the Cotton Bowl. Despite three straight 10-win seasons, the Gamecocks are still waiting for their first invitation to the BCS.
Spurrier knew what other possibilities existed. He didn't hide from them Sunday night, mentioning the Cotton Bowl in his opening statement to the media at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Instead, No. 9 South Carolina will play in the Capital One Bowl for the second time in three years, matched up with No. 19 Wisconsin.
"We are thrilled to be selected in the Capital One Bowl, New Year's Day in Orlando. We look forward to it," Spurrier said. "At one time, we talked about a possible - if the Cotton worked out - but it didn't work out. . I really believe the Capital One by far is the best bowl for our university, for our fans and for our team that we could possibly go to."
The Gamecocks (10-2) will play Wisconsin (9-3) at 1 p.m. New Year's Day on WCIV-TV/ABC. It's South Carolina's third straight Big Ten bowl opponent and its third straight bowl game in Florida. USC beat Nebraska, 30-13, in the 2012 Capital One Bowl.
Last week, The Post and Courier reported South Carolina would play in the Capital One Bowl if Auburn beat Missouri in the SEC championship game. Auburn won, 59-42, and will play in the BCS Championship Game, while Missouri will play in the Cotton Bowl.
Unlike South Carolina, Orlando is a different destination for Wisconsin. The Badgers played in the past three Rose Bowls, losing each. Their last bowl victory was against Miami in the 2009 Champs Sports Bowl. Wisconsin won consecutive Capital One Bowls in 2006 and 2007, beating Auburn and Arkansas.
Spurrier doesn't know much about Wisconsin, though he'll have more than three weeks to brush up in the film room. The Gamecocks and Badgers have never previously met. Against a team annually ranked among the nation's top rushing offenses, Spurrier knows what to expect.
"We've got to get our run defense pants on, that's for sure," Spurrier said. "When you play a team like Wisconsin, they can run it, run it and run it, and they can stay on the field for a long time if you don't watch it. So we'll try to gear up to stop the run. Sometimes we've been pretty good at it, and sometimes not so good."
There's the rest of December to overanalyze South Carolina's final game of the season. On Sunday, it was all about the destination.
For some fans, there was no escaping disappointment. Another Big Ten opponent lacks the sizzle of a dream Cotton Bowl matchup between Spurrier and his former defensive coordinator, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. The Sooners beat in-state rival Oklahoma State on Saturday, earning a trip to the Sugar Bowl.
Even more, the Gamecocks were once again victimized by playing in the loaded SEC. South Carolina was one of three teams in the top 12 that didn't receive an invitation to a BCS bowl. Another was No. 8 Missouri, which USC beat on the road this season.
Clemson is headed to the Orange Bowl for the second time in three years. Central Florida will play in the Fiesta Bowl. South Carolina beat both teams this fall, including UCF on the road.
"I'd rather be in our scenario where we beat them, other than they beat us and us go to the BCS game," senior quarterback Connor Shaw reasoned. "So I'm happy with the situation we're in."
Happy. Even content. No matter the potential alternatives.
Fans didn't get the destination they wanted. Instead, their team will go to a game considered bigger than the Cotton Bowl within the SEC hierarchy.
The Capital One Bowl gets first pick among SEC teams following BCS selections. Among games with SEC affiliation, its $4.55 million payout in 2012 trailed only the Sugar Bowl and BCS championship game.
Spurrier said it's more than good enough.
"Nobody said it's supposed to be fair, now. You know that," Spurrier said. "College football is not all that fair. But, really, a BCS bowl game or a Capital One Bowl game. What's the difference? A little bit more money to the school, the conference.
"The players get the same amount of gifts and expense money to spend, and so forth. So it's not that big of deal. It's just a little more status, going to a major bowl."