South Carolina has sights on becoming bowl eligible

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) South Carolina linebacker Jonathan Walton has one goal on his mind - qualify for a bowl game.

''We've got something to fight for,'' Walton said Tuesday.

The Gamecocks (5-5) hope to extend their season this week against struggling Football Championship Subdivision opponent (2-8) at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday. It may not be as easy a task as it sounds, given the last time South Carolina faced an FCS opponent, Citadel walked out with a 23-22 victory.

''That makes me nuts, every day,'' left tackle Mason Zandi said.

Walton, Zandi and the Gamecocks say those memories from last year drive them at practice this week, particular with a chance to extend their season into the holidays.

South Carolina coach Will Muschamp began talking up a bowl bid several weeks ago as his team rallied from a 2-4 start to win three in a row before last week's 20-7 defeat at Florida .

''I talk to these guys all the time,'' the first-year coach said. ''These seniors want to go to a bowl game. That's very important for our program.''

Especially for the additional month or so of workouts, film breakdowns and practices leading up to a postseason game given how young South Carolina is.

That youth showed last week at The Swamp as freshman quarterback Jake Bentley was swarmed by the Gators' strong defensive line most of the game. He threw his first college interception and was sacked five times. Fellow freshman Rico Dowdle, who ran for over 100 yards in his two previous games, was held to 18 yards on nine carries before missing the fourth quarter due to injury.

Still, the Gamecocks are the only Football Bowl Subdivision team with freshmen as leading passer (Bentley) and rusher (Dowdle).

Football's not a sport where you can improve on your own, Muschamp said, like playing one-on-one in the backyard or heading to a batting cage.

''You've got to go play the game and we need to be able to have these practices to continue to develop our youth,'' the coach said.

South Carolina didn't figure to be in the mix for any bowl given the start to their season.

Three straight losses to Kentucky, Texas A&M and Georgia left the Gamecocks staggered at 2-4 heading into a bye week without much hope to continue past November. But Muschamp brought true freshman Bentley in off the bench for co-starters Perry Orth and Brandon McIlwain and South Carolina began to take flight.

The surprise was a 24-21 win over previously ranked Tennessee on Oct. 29 that put the Gamecocks in sight of a six-win season after going 3-9 last year.

South Carolina's upperclassmen know that it's like going to a bowl. Last year's losing mark - longtime head coach Steve Spurrier walked away in midseason with the team struggling - was South Carolina's first since going 5-7 under Lou Holtz in 2003.

Spurrier led the Gamecocks to seven straight bowl games from 2008 through 2014, winning the last four postseason games including the 2014 Independence Bowl the last time South Carolina qualified.

''I know what it's like to miss a bowl,'' said Zandi, among 20 seniors who'll be honored in their final home game. ''I'm not watching bowl games from my house this year.''

The Gamecocks have had a couple of good, strong, focused days of work prepping for Western Carolina, which has lost seven of its past eight games.

The Catamounts problems this season don't matter, said center Alan Knott. There's only one goal the players discuss.

''We've got to get our sixth win this week, we've got to get bowl eligible,'' Knott said. ''That's what we're working for.''

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More AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org

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