- South Carolina will play Notre Dame on Friday at TIAA Bank Field in the 78th TaxSlayer Gator Bowl
- The game is close to a sell-out and all stadium parking lots are sold out
- Notre Dame last played in the Gator Bowl in 2003, South Carolina in 1987
The Gamecocks and the Fighting Irish are coming to town — five days after Santa Claus.
And it could be another gift of sold-out crowds at TIAA Bank Field this holiday season. Fans will again pack hotel rooms, eat, drink and enjoy a merry season with their favorite football teams.
Between the Jaguars’ victory over the Dallas Cowboys in front of a sell-out crowd at TIAA Bank Field on Dec. 18, and another expected packed house Jan. 7 or 8 when they play host to the Tennessee Titans in a game that might well decide the AFC South title, the 78th spannnuspanl TspanxSlspanyer Gspantor Bowl will add potentially another sold-out game to a December and January to remember in Jacksonville.
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The nation’s sixth-oldest bowl will match 19th-ranked South Carolina and No. 21 Notre Dame on Friday at 3:30 p.m. (ESPN), part of a daylong fest of college games that will begin with the Duke’s Mayo Bowl in Charlotte between N.C. State and Maryland, then the Irish- Gamecocks leading into the Orange Bowl between Clemson and Tennessee.
As of late last week, less than 2,000 tickets remained. If there are tickets left, they can be purchased at tspanxslspanyergspantorbowl.com or secondary markets such as ticketmspanster.com.
Notre Dame and South Carolina are both 8-4 and had impressive runs this season after rough starts.
The Irish lost their first two games and coach Marcus Freeman was 0-3 in his first three games (he took over for Brian Kelly in the Fiesta Bowl last year, and lost to Oklahoma State) but bounced back to win eight of nine, and five in a row before closing the regular season with a loss at USC.
South Carolina was 1-2 but went on a four-game winning streak. The Gamecocks then bounced back from losses to Missouri and Florida to become the first team in history to beat two top-10 teams in a row to close the season, routing No. 5 Tennessee 63-38 and topping No. 8 Clemson 31-30.
Thanks to South Carolina fans who are exuberant about their first Florida bowl game since 2014 and second in a row under coach Shane Beamer, and Notre Dame’s traditional status as a nationwide TV magnet, the game was a guaranteed hit as soon as it was announced and will be the first sell-out since the 2010 game between Florida State and West Virginia that was the finspanl gspanme cospanched by the legendspanry Bobby Bowden.
Here are five things to know about the game:
Welcome back … it’s been a long time
Notre Dame hasn’t played in the Gator Bowl since 2003 when the Irish lost to Phillip Rivers and N.C. State 28-6. South Carolina’s last appearance was in 1987, a 30-13 loss to LSU.
The Irish have been in Jacksonville fairly recently. They faced Navy in 2016 and lost 28-27.
Notre Dame is 1-2 in the Gator Bowl, beating Penn State 20-9 in 1976 and losing to Georgia Tech 35-28 in 1999. The Gamecocks are 0-4 in the game.
The two teams also haven’t faced each other since 1984, when South Carolina won 36-32 in South Bend. It was the only time the Gamecocks beat the Irish in four meetings. Notre Dame won three times between 1976 and 1983.
Rising stars on the sidelines
Freeman, 36, and Beamer, 45, are both in their first head coaching jobs. Beamer is 15-10 in his first two seasons and took the Gamecocks to the Duke’s Mayo Bowl last season where they upset North Carolina 38-21.
Both of them paid their dues. Freeman played linebacker at Ohio State and after turns in the NFL with Chicago, Buffalo and Houston he began coaching as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, followed by stints at Kent State, Purdue and Cincinnati. He came to Notre Dame as the defensive coordinator and linebackers coach in 2021.
Beamer played for his father Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech and has spent time on the coaching staffs there, and at Georgia Tech, Tennessee, Mississippi State, Georgia and Oklahoma. Beamer has had experience coaching on offense and defense.
Different quarterback situations
Notre Dame lost the quarterback who was under center for all eight victories, Drew Pyne, who entered the transfer portal after Freeman told him he was considering signing another quarterback. That leaves the job presumably in the hands of the player who started the first two games, sophomore Tyler Buchner.
Buchner is mobile and threw for 378 yards in those games. But both were losses and he had two interceptions and no TD passes. He injured his shoulder in the second game against Marshall.
Freshman Steve Angeli is also getting into the mix in bowl practices and Freeman hasn’t yet made a decision on his starter.
Whoever plays won’t have the top receiver for the Irish this season, junior tight end Michael Mayer, who opted out for the NFL Draft.
The Gamecocks, on the other hand, are set with junior Spencer Rattler, who exploded in the final two games after some struggles earlier in the season. Rattler threw for six touchdowns against Tennessee and has pitched half his 16 TD passes for the season in the last two games. He’s thrown for 2,780 yards.
While Rattler could have declared for the NFL Draft, he vowed before bowl selection day that he would play for the Gamecocks in whatever bowl they made.
Like Notre Dame, Rattler has lost a key weapon in tight end Jaheim Bell, who was third on the team in receiving and second in rushing but entered the portal and will play at Florida State. Also departing is MarShawn Lloyd, the Gamecocks’ rushing leader (573 yards and nine touchdowns).
Solid special teams
South Carolina and Notre Dame are among the top teams in the nation in overall special teams play. Football Outsider’s college special teams rankings lists the Gamecocks first and the Irish sixth in the country.
The Gamecocks have one of the top punters anywhere in Kai Kroeger (46.83 per attempt, second in the nation). And don’t fall asleep on him: he’s completed 3 of 3 passes on fake punts, for 84 yards and a 48-yard touchdown against Florida.
Notre Dame’s Brandon Joseph is 12th in the nation in punt returns (9.9).
South Carolina is third in the nation in punt returns (18.33 yards), fifth in kickoff returns (25.05) and fifth in net punting (43.27).
But where both teams excel is in blocking kicks and avoiding them. Notre Dame is tied for first in the nation with seven blocked kicks, all of them punts, and South Carolina is tied for third with six blocks, five punts and one field-goal attempt.
On the flip side, the Irish haven’t allowed a blocked kick this season and the Gamecocks just one.
South Carolina has two punt returns for touchdowns and one kickoff return. Kicker Mitch Jeter hasn’t missed on 10 field-goal attempts and is 37 of 39 on conversions. Notre Dame’s Blake Grupe has made 13 of 18 field-goal attempts but he’s perfect on conversions with 43 in a row.
Local presence lacking
Only one thing is lacking from this Gator Bowl: First Coast or South Georgia players with the chance to make a significant impact.
Two area players for South Carolina were Bell (Lake City) and defensive back Tyrese Ross (Jacksonville), who went to the portal. Another area Gamecock, senior edge rusher Jordan Strachan, who went down for the season with an injury in week two.
However, the First Coast proved fruitful for the Gamecocks on early signing day last week. They landed Jackson linebacker Grayson Howard and Bolles tight end Connor Cox.
The only area player for Notre Dame is sophomore wide receiver Jack Polian from Ponte Vedra High, who has yet to play in a game.