Connecticut (7-5) vs. South Carolina (7-5)Jan. 2, 2 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Reason to watch: UConn's team became one of the most inspirational stories of the season following the Oct. 18 murder of revered cornerback Jasper "Jazz" Howard. The grieving Huskies lost three straight down-to-the-wire games before rallying to win at Notre Dame, then beat their last two Big East opponents. The Huskies will be honored with the FedEx Orange Bowl-FWAA Courage Award on Jan.4. And if that doesn't do it for you, there's always the inevitable Steve Spurrier-grimacing-on-the-sideline moments.
Keep an eye on: When the TV cameras are on, South Carolina's Eric Norwood tends to shine. The two-time first team All-SEC linebacker didn't post overwhelming statistics this season (60 tackles, seven sacks) but he had some huge games on national TV, notching two sacks in the Thursday-night opener at NC State, a sack and a pick-six against Georgia, two sacks and a blocked kick against Ole Miss and a 14-yard fumble return against Clemson.
Did you know: South Carolina fans, buoyed by the season-ending upset of Clemson, are far more psyched for Birmingham than they were for last year's Tampa trip. The school sold out its 10,000-seat allotment and thousands more have bought tickets independently. Last year, South Carolina sold just 7,284 tickets to the Outback Bowl against Iowa.
Final analysis: I can't offer you any statistical reason why the Huskies will win this game. Their defense has struggled against the pass; the Gamecocks' top-15 defense will be the toughest they've faced. But sometimes in these third-tier bowls you have to go on emotion, and this game means far more to Connecticut's players than it does to South Carolina's.
The pick: Connecticut 28, South Carolina 24.
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