COLUMBIA -- South Carolina has a major advantage this bowl season than it has in each of the past two, which, as you know, didn't go so well: The Gamecocks have an offensive line coach.
Sounds pretty elementary, right? Of course a team would need an offensive line coach for any game, let alone a postseason game.
Circumstances, though, have prevented it from being the case for the Gamecocks the past two years. But, in this December, it has Shawn Elliott helping the linemen get ready for the Dec. 31 Chick-fil-A Bowl against Florida State.
"That's right!" Steve Spurrier said, discovering it himself whenever someone asked him about Elliott at the bowl's Dec. 10 news conference. "That should help us. That is true. ... That should make a difference. When you get smashed around, and maybe your quarterback and receivers are not really having a big game, you look bad."
Two years ago, Spurrier made the difficult decision to fire friend and longtime assistant John Hunt after a wretched performance by the team at
Clemson. Spurrier made that decision, though, with the thought that Vanderbilt's Robbie Caldwell would come on board for the Outback Bowl.
Didn't happen. Caldwell, who was Vanderbilt's head coach this season before stepping down, had a change of heart about leaving the Commodores.
That left grad assistant Cedric Williams, a Charleston-area native and a former USC lineman, in charge of the unit. It's of no offense to Williams, who has since moved on to start his coaching career. It was a tremendous opportunity, in a sense -- but a virtually impossible position in which to succeed.
And, yet, it's exactly what happened again a year later. Eric Wolford held the line job during the season, but then left to become the head coach at Youngstown State, in his hometown.
Graduate assistant Andy Boyd, a former South Carolina tight end, took over the line as it prepared for the Papajohns.com Bowl. Boyd is still on staff as an assistant.
But now there's Elliott, the fiery and successful Camden native who joined the staff after nearly two decades as a coach and player at Appalachian State.
After the Papajohns.com Bowl misery against Connecticut, Spurrier checked his phone. He had a text from Elliott, who had interviewed for the vacancy a week earlier. Elliott told Spurrier he could help. And here's his shot, at least in a bowl.
The line hasn't turned into a force in Elliott's first season, but, then again, no one expected that. The Gamecocks just didn't want it to be a liability any longer, and that's seemingly a mission that's been accomplished.
Guard Garrett Chisolm and tackle Kyle Nunn are the players who have probably progressed the most in Elliott's first season. Defensive tackle Ladi Ajiboye said last week that he's noticed a difference in practice in the guys he's going up against.
"We've improved. I don't know whether it's just me or them being a year older or what," Elliott said. "They've done OK. We've got a good back and wide receivers and quarterback that probably makes us look better than we are. But they've done OK, not bad."
It's not as if having Elliott guarantees success against Florida State. After all, the Seminoles are second in the country, with 46 sacks.
"We've been busy getting ready for one of the best defensive rushing teams in the nation," Watkins said. "We're going to have to play our hearts out."
The Gamecocks will figure out next week whether they'll be without Chisolm, the West Ashley native who was named a second-team All-SEC performer by the coaches. Chisolm injured his knee last week, but Spurrier was hopeful when he talked Monday about Chisolm's chances of playing. Terrence Campbell and Jarriel King have been working at left guard, while Chisolm heals.
Here's one thing you can look for New Year's Eve in the Georgia Dome: The team will be milling around during pregame warm-ups -- and then Elliott will go absolutely berserk, to fire up his guys. It's become an emotional tradition this season.
Sometimes Elliott doesn't know his own strength or gusto. He purportedly injured Hutch Eckerson's ankle when he chest-bumped the senior before the Georgia game. Eckerson certainly didn't deny that, when asked earlier in the fall.
But, be sure, Elliott does far more mental good than physical harm during that exercise. In fact, his passion for the line has led to marked improvements this season.
The Gamecocks gave up 28 sacks this season, as opposed to 37 a year ago. Many of this year's sacks, too, were 1- or 2-yard losses when Stephen Garcia stepped out of bounds to avoid the rush. There weren't nearly as many drive-crippling 7-to-10-yard varieties.
Elliott's just getting started, in a lot of ways. But the Gamecocks are glad to have him - especially for the bowl.
"To have him more than a year, I think he's going to help me achieve my maximum potential as a player," said sophomore T.J. Johnson, recruited by Hunt, coached by Wolford his freshman year and Elliott his second. "That's something I'm excited about."