ORLANDO, Fla. - Quietly, among themselves, they fumed for a month. Privately, they talked about the disrespect, the absent vote of confidence. Their anger simmered, fueling them in practice, bonding them over the holidays.
When South Carolina opened as an underdog against Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl, players noticed. In disbelief, they marveled how a team with more wins in a tougher conference - and with a higher national ranking - could be expected to lose. How surprising was the point spread? Even Wisconsin couldn't believe it.
"I was a little surprised," Badgers linebacker Chris Borland said this week. "We're confident that we're going to win. It's just this huge SEC bias out there that they're a great conference, which they are. But, yeah, I was surprised."
The SEC bias is justified, earned with unprecedented bowl success. The nation's premier football conference has won seven straight national championships. Since 2000, the SEC is 29-20 against the Big Ten in bowl games. Since the 1970s, the Big Ten has never finished a decade with a winning bowl record against the SEC.
Regardless, No. 19 Wisconsin remained a 1-point favorite over No. 8 South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl, which will be played at the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando 1 p.m. Wednesday on ABC. Of the 10 SEC bowl teams this season, South Carolina is one of two listed as an underdog. The other is No. 2 Auburn, which will play No. 1 Florida State in the BCS National Championship Game.
It hasn't set well with the Gamecocks. After a month of stewing, senior defensive end Chaz Sutton let everyone know how his team felt about their slight.
"I don't want to sound like a cocky type of guy, but I just kind of take it as a slap in the face," Sutton said this week. "We as a team collectively, we work hard and we bust our butts at practice every day and listen to what the coaches tell us to do. For us to be the highly ranked team coming into this game and be labeled as the underdog, we kind of take it as a slap in the face as a team collectively, because we know what type of guys we've got coming to this ballpark on Wednesday. We just feel like we deserve way, much more respect than what we're getting right now."
Wisconsin's motivation Wednesday is simple. The Badgers have lost three straight Rose Bowls. Eventually, they'd like to win a bowl game.
South Carolina, which has won two straight bowl games against Big Ten opponents, needed to look harder to find motivation this bowl season. It didn't take long for the Gamecocks to get some. On Wednesday, they hope to show why the oddsmakers made a mistake.
"Since we have been here, coach said you're only good as your last game," senior guard Ronald Patrick said. "And that's the last one. You don't want to have a nasty taste in your mouth. So, bragging rights."
In college football, bragging rights are reserved for familiar foes. South Carolina and Wisconsin, two teams that have never played each other, don't naturally fit.
Here is an exception.
There's a certain amount of pride that was stolen when the professional handicappers gave their nod to Wisconsin. On Wednesday night, when South Carolina returns to Columbia, it hopes to bring bragging rights back home.
"It's a great feeling when you could just go back to your community and just have that weight lifted off your shoulders," Sutton said. "For the next eight months, you can train and get ready for the next season and prepare and just not have that heavy weight on your shoulder that, 'Man, we let our fans and community down, and we let each other down by not getting this game, not winning this game.'
"So, just to go in and dominate and have a great game. That's our goal, and that's what we came here for."