You've probably seen that SB Nation has way-to-early bowl projections up, and according to Jason Kirk, the Gamecocks are going to land in Charlotte's Belk Bowl, where our guys will take on the North Carolina Tar Heels. While the prospect of taking on UNC in a bowl isn't unappealing, my first reaction to reading this was anger at an apparent snub. I mean, it's not shocking that we're not being picked to make the playoff, but falling all the way to the Belk Bowl? Before you prepare to digitally tar-and-feather Kirk, though, note the following:
And most conferences have added some flexibility to their rankings and taken some charge of which teams go where. That should mean more games closer to home for fans and fewer matchups made just for the sake of seeing two famous teams in the same remote stadium. It also means some of you cannot be upset with me if your team is projected in a bowl that's a conference's fifth bowl instead of its fourth bowl, because those two bowls are now ranked the same. I'll miss those talks.
This article by Dan Wolken also provides some useful info on how the system is changing. What's basically happening is that whereas in the past the SEC tie-in bowls had a pecking order for which bowl had a shot at which bowl-eligible SEC team, with a little wiggle room within that pecking order for bowl operators, conferences, and schools to negotiate favorable matchups, there's a new process now, per Wolken:
Instead of establishing a selection order and letting the bowls draft teams as they've done for decades, the SEC will put its six mid-level bowls – the Outback, Music City, Gator, Liberty, Texas and Belk – into a pool and essentially assign teams to those games to maximize matchups and geography.
In other words, there's no longer an established pecking order among the Outback, Music City, Gator, Liberty, Texas, and Belk Bowls. (Note that the Cotton Bowl and the Chick-fil-A Bowl--which is being required to change its name back to the Chick-fil-A Peach or some other less tasteless corporate moniker--are part of the group of playoff bowls.) We're accustomed to thinking of the Outback and Gator as decidedly better than the Liberty, Music City, Texas, and Belk Bowls, but that's no longer the case, at least not in the sense that the Outback or Gator get access to better teams--obviously, fans will still have preferences about venue. The way bids to these bowls will now be decided is that the SEC will have a great deal of power to work with other conferences to create what it views as optimal matchups that generate excitement and sell tickets.
This being the case, the Belk bid makes sense. Obviously, you may disagree with the assertion that Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, and LSU will all finish ahead of Carolina. I certainly think we have a good chance of finishing higher than fifth in the conference if we address perceived weaknesses at CB and DE and the chips fall our way in close games. However, if we don't finish higher than fifth, the Belk is a reasonable projection. Why? First of all, it's in Charlotte. While not necessarily the most exciting bowl experience for Carolina fans, we'll show up in droves to go to a game that's a short drive for anyone living in the Midlands or Upstate, not to mention Charlotte itself, which is home to tons of Carolina fans. This is what Wolken has in mind when he says geography will play a big role in the selection process for these bowls. Second of all, if a decent UNC team is available, a Tar Heels-Gamecocks matchup will generate some excitement. Many of us consider UNC a rival of sorts and would love the Battle for the Carolinas to take place in a bowl.
Given the new selection format, I'm wondering if the Belk Bowl is going to be a pretty common destination for us in years when we don't break into the upper tier. I doubt we would go every year it's a possibility, as fan fatigue would eventually settle in. Trips to Florida are still going to occur fairly regularly, I'm sure. But you can see how the Belk Bowl offers some good possibilities for Carolina.
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