COLUMBIA — Nobody should get lost.
South Carolina landed in the closest bowl game to Columbia on Sunday, accepting a bid to the Belk Bowl. The Gamecocks (7-5) will play Virginia (7-5) at noon on Dec. 29 in Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium.
“One of our best alumni bases is in Charlotte, we do a lot of recruiting in that area,” USC coach Will Muschamp said. “There’s a lot on the line for us. We’re going for back-to-back eight-win seasons for only the seventh time in school history.”
The Gamecocks have a long history with the Cavaliers, leading the series 21-12-1. The teams last played in Columbia in 2003, when USC won 31-7 a year after losing 34-21 in Charlottesville. Those two games were the first in the series since 1987.
Muschamp hadn’t looked at any tape Sunday (he just found out the opponent, too) and doesn’t know Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall personally. But the preparation has already begun.
The destination was long suspected but met with curiosity. Why would the Belk Bowl want the Gamecocks, knowing that the great majority of USC fans will not spend a week patronizing Charlotte’s hotels and restaurants?
Because being so close could bring a groundswell in ticket sales. An early kick that doesn’t interfere with Christmas or New Year’s plans, and with the stadium an hour from Columbia and within three hours of nearly any location in South Carolina, is expected to raise attendance past 40,000.
The Belk Bowl had a mere 32,784 fans last year after hosting 46,902 in 2016. Bank of America Stadium holds 75,412.
“We are pleased to welcome South Carolina and Virginia to the 2018 Belk Bowl,” Belk Bowl Executive Director Will Webb said in a statement. “The Gamecocks and Cavaliers have each enjoyed a great season, and they should have an exciting, competitive game on the field. Both teams have tremendous, enthusiastic fans that should make the 2018 Belk Bowl very memorable.”
A bowl game is expected at USC, and the Gamecocks are always glad to be going anywhere but home for the holidays. The closer location allows for several players to have more time with their families over Christmas, although a schedule hasn’t been finalized.
The Belk Bowl said that the first bowl event is a morning opportunity on Dec. 26 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. USC will practice seven to eight times in Columbia before going to Charlotte.
USC is very familiar with BofA Stadium, compiling a 3-0 record there during season openers in 2011, 2015 and 2017. The Gamecocks are also scheduled to open the 2019 and 2023 seasons there, each time against North Carolina.
Muschamp became the first coach in USC history to guide the Gamecocks to bowl games in each of his first three years. USC lost to USF in Birmingham in 2016 and beat Michigan in Tampa on Jan. 1.
The Gamecocks are 9-13 in bowl games but have won five of their last six.
Bryson Allen-Williams, Jaycee Horn and Jaylin Dickerson will definitely play in the bowl game, Muschamp said. There’s a chance Aaron Sterling may play.
D.J. Wonnum is uncertain. Zack Bailey is out.