The paths Notre Dame and South Carolina each took to arrive in the Dec. 30 Gator Bowl were traced with similarities, yet they were divergent in their own ways as well. The net result is a pair of teams with matching 8-4 records that are just two spots apart at No. 19 (South Carolina) and No. 21 (Notre Dame) in the pre-bowl College Football Playoff rankings.
Both teams started with a 1-2 record and each had a loss to an eventual CFP semifinal participant in its first three games. The Irish opened their season with a 21-10 loss to current No. 4 Ohio State, while the Gamecocks lost 48-7 to reigning national champion and current No. 1 Georgia in week three.
Each team had what turned out to be a confounding early loss on its resume. The early goodwill that a close loss to the Buckeyes brought about was offset by Notre Dame’s 26-21 home loss to Marshall the next week.
The transfer laden Thundering Herd would lose their next two and four of their next six games after knocking off the Irish, but they finished their season 8-4 with a four-game winning streak and will face UConn in the Dec. 19 Myrtle Beach Bowl.
"After starting off the season 0-2, being a first-year head coach, you were trying to do whatever it takes to win,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman recounted this week. "But then you started building on momentum and improving.”
South Carolina’s week two 44-30 loss to then No. 16 Arkansas seemed “quality” enough at the time, but the Razorbacks stumbled to a 6-6 overall record with a 3-5 finish in the SEC (though still good enough for a Liberty Bowl berth against Kansas).
"It didn’t start off the way we wanted, losing to Arkansas and Georgia in the first three weeks,” South Carolina head coach Shane Beamer said of the 1-2 start. "We weren’t competitive against Georgia. But our guys just kept working and kept getting better.”
The Gamecocks scored 50-plus points in each of their next two wins over Charlotte and South Carolina State, but those were hardly true tests of what they would need to be to survive in the SEC. That test came in an Oct. 8 road game at No. 13 Kentucky.
South Carolina won 24-14 for its first conference win of the season to help propel it to a 7-2 record over its last nine games.
"That was a pivotal point for us,” Beamer said this week. "South Carolina hadn’t won in Lexington in I believe it was 10 years. We went up there against a nationally ranked Kentucky team that was coming off a tough loss to Ole Miss. To win that night in the way that we did was huge for us.”
The Gamecocks overcame a pair of early turnovers against the Wildcats to get their first win over a ranked team in nearly two calendar years. Their first road win over a ranked team in nearly three full seasons. They closed the season with wins over top-10 teams Tennessee and rival Clemson in back to back weeks.
South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler turned in his two best games of the season in those consecutive wins. The Oklahoma transfer totaled 798 passing yards with eight passing touchdowns and one more TD on the ground in those victories.
"I did take a couple minutes to peek at the just the offense versus Clemson and then obviously watch a little bit of the Tennessee game,” Freeman said Sunday night in his Gator Bowl press conference. "He's special. Their offense is explosive. I haven't watched much of their defense yet but they have an explosive offense and it's all it all starts with their quarterback.”
Even with the two big wins to close the season, South Carolina didn’t have a clean spring to the season’s finish line. The Gamecocks fell to both Missouri and Florida, who each finished their seasons with 6-6 overall and 3-5 SEC marks.
Notre Dame appeared to have its own season righted after the early Marshall loss, by rattling off consecutive wins over California, North Carolina and BYU in consecutive weeks.
Backup quarterback Drew Pyne shook off a jittery first half against the Golden Bears to complete better than 70% of his passes with eight touchdown throws in that three-game stretch. Pyne was bolstered by a running attack that came to life by averaging 222 yards in the three-game streak, but it all came crashing down in the Oct. 15 16-14 loss to Stanford.
Freeman looked in the mirror at his own leadership, but also looked to player leadership to keep the entire season from sinking after what could have been a complete plunge into the abyss after the loss to a Cardinal team that only won one more game the rest of the season.
"We had a loss to Stanford and it was (the) ability for our leaders to help us regroup,” Freeman remarked. "The coaching staff did a great job of setting the plan and the standards, but our leaders kind of really took the lead and helped us improve.”
Notre Dame ran off five consecutive wins after the Stanford loss. The high points were wins over No. 16 Syracuse and No. 4 Clemson in succession. Even a 35-32 win over Navy had potholes from half to half, but a 44-0 Senior Day dismantling of Boston College smoothed things before a disappointing 38-27 loss to rival USC to close the regular season.
"We talked about it being the bumpy road,” Freeman said of the path of his first season that led to the Gator Bowl. "It wasn’t how we foresaw it as the season started, but the ability to improve week after week, after wins and losses, was the challenge that I had as the head coach for this team. To finish this season off with the opportunity to play South Carolina, we’re extremely excited.”
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