COLUMBIA - There were two options, two distinct paths South Carolina could travel this bowl season.
Behind one door was the fans' choice, the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic near Dallas. Behind another was the Capital One Bowl, where No. 8 South Carolina will play No. 19 Wisconsin at 1 p.m. on New Year's Day in Orlando.
Once the program's first trip to a BCS bowl was out of reach, that was it.
So, how did the Gamecocks get here?
It started 10 days ago at Williams-Brice Stadium. In South Carolina's final game of another remarkable fall, there was a chance to end with a signature victory against in-state rival and then-No. 6 Clemson. For the Gamecocks' bowl opportunities, this was the fork in the road.
"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," Capital One Bowl CEO Steve Hogan told The Post and Courier five days before South Carolina hosted Clemson. "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."
In hindsight, avoiding a 9-3 record diverted South Carolina's path. If the Capital One Bowl passed Missouri with an 11-2 record, it would have gone against an unwritten, two-loss rule among bowl selectors. You can dip down to invite a team with one more loss, they say. Not two.
Even after beating Clemson, South Carolina's path was not final. Earlier that same day, Auburn shocked top-ranked Alabama, throwing the BCS into a mess. Suddenly, the Crimson Tide wasn't going to Pasadena for the BCS national championship game. Auburn, expected to be a lock for the Sugar Bowl, had bigger stakes.
On one hand, the Tigers had a chance to play for a spot in the national title bout, which they earned with a win over Missouri in the SEC championship game. If Auburn lost Saturday, Alabama was already a lock for a BCS bowl. The Tigers likely would have fallen to the Capital One Bowl, sending South Carolina somewhere else.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier is pleased with his team's destination.
"This is the best place for us to go, no question," Spurrier said Sunday night. "It's an excellent bowl trip and there's a lot to do. I know our players - I talked to Connor Shaw earlier - enjoyed it. There's stuff to do all the time and hotel accommodations were super, and we look forward to spending a week in Orlando."
The Capital One Bowl is a special place to Spurrier, just as it is for South Carolina's football history. Inside the decaying Florida Citrus Bowl, the Gamecocks reached a program-record 11th win with a 30-13 victory over Nebraska in the 2012 Capital One Bowl.
Two seasons later, South Carolina has a chance to reach 11 wins for the third straight year if it beats Wisconsin.
"Marketable players, marketable coach, pretty close by, had a historic season in terms of overall win-loss records," Hogan told The Post and Courier in November. "To be a part of that was cool. They were great here, and any time you can have them, I think you'd be proud to have them. We didn't have any issue with that whatsoever. They were everything you'd expect them to be."
Now, South Carolina hopes the Capital One Bowl is everything it expects the experience to be. Maybe there were other destinations on its wish list. The Cotton Bowl would have been something new. The BCS would have brought more "status," as Spurrier called it. Maybe the grass is always greener.
Spurrier and his quarterback weren't complaining Sunday night.
"We appreciate the Capital One Bowl taking us, and hopefully we can have some memories like we did two years ago in Orlando," Spurrier said. "I know personally and for our team, winning 11 games for the first time in school history down there was a very special day for us. Hopefully, we can have another special day, but it won't be easy and it should be a heck of game with Wisconsin."
Follow Ryan Wood on Twitter @rwood_SC.
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