The big 2014 Capital One Bowl breakdown: Badgers vs. Gamecocks, numbers vs. legacy

USA TODAY Sports

On paper, Wisconsin holds a slight edge over South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl (New Year's Day, 1 p.m. ET, ABC). But only one team won a particularly close game in 2013, and it's not the Badgers. It's clutchitude vs. calculators!

It's not hard to be a little underwhelmed by the non-BCS batch of January 1 bowls. LSU fans aren't excited about LSU-Iowa, and neither Nebraska's nor Georgia's fanbase seems particularly jazzed about their Gator Bowl rematch. And then there's UNLV-North Texas in the old Cotton Bowl, and while this could actually be a pretty fun game, it's not destined for the attention of casual fans.

Among this crop, however, one game stands out. The Capital One Bowl eschews the normal disappointed-SEC-team-against-Big-Ten-underdog narrative; despite ranking 10 spots lower in the polls, Wisconsin is actually a slight favorite over South Carolina in Orlando. The 9-3 Badgers lost three games by a total of 16 points and beat everybody else by an average score of 39-9. Steve Spurrier's 10-2 Gamecocks, meanwhile, lost two games by just 12 points and otherwise perfected the art of looking great when it had to (and not a moment before).

Despite a worse overall record in a worse conference, Wisconsin is a darling of the numbers here. But what happens if this game remains close throughout (as it very well could)? Do you go with the team that is superior on paper or the one that actually didn't go 0-3 in one-possession games (South Carolina went 4-1)? Do you really pick against Jadeveon Clowney in his final game? Do you pick against close-game magician Connor Shaw?

How they got here

Wisconsin's season to date

Statistically sound from the beginning of the season, Wisconsin experienced slight missteps with every opportunity to prove itself.

Ranked 20th, the Badgers went to Arizona State and lost a confusing, controversial 32-30 game to a Sun Devils squad that would go on to win the Pac-12 South. Though everybody agreed they were hosed, Wisconsin still dropped four spots in the polls. Two weeks later, they fell victim to a slow start in Columbus and couldn't quite catch up to Ohio State, losing 31-24. And on the cusp of a potential BCS at-large bid at 14th, Wisconsin started slowly again on Senior Day and got upset by Penn State, 31-24.

Lost amid three tight, disappointing losses was a long string of outstanding performances. Wisconsin dominated bad teams (UMass, Tennessee, Tech, Purdue, Illinois), survived defensive slugfests against BYU and Minnesota, and handled decent Northwestern, Iowa, and Indiana teams with ease. The way they handled most iffy teams is typically a good sign of how they'll play against good teams as well, but they're still looking for a marquee win, and South Carolina's probably the second-best team they've played this year.

SC's season to date

South Carolina and Wisconsin were opposites in most ways. Marquee wins? South Carolina certainly has those. The Gamecocks went to Missouri and handed the Tigers their only regular-season loss of the year, then handled Clemson by 14 points at home in Rivalry Week. That's two wins over top-6 (at the time) teams. Plus, one of their losses was on the road to an almost full-strength Georgia team.

It's easier to beat Steve Spurrier than it is Nick Saban, but it's probably harder to prepare for Spurrier.

South Carolina has the wins Wisconsin lacks, but the Gamecocks also figured out ways to bumble around against teams that they should have handled relatively easily. They bolted out to a huge leads against Vanderbilt and Kentucky, then gave most of the leads back. They let UCF jump out to a double-digit lead, surged ahead, then held on for dear life. They barely sneaked by a Florida team with no offense. And the week before they won at Missouri, they lost at Tennessee.

The result: a great-looking résumé with only a small handful of remarkable performances. The numbers like Wisconsin's list of performances, but it's hard to forget how good Shaw looked against Missouri and how good the defense looked against Clemson. Statistics vs. anecdotes.

Data dump

Team Record BCS F/+ Rk Line Off F/+ Rk Def F/+ Rk ST F/+ Rk
Wisconsin 9-3 19 10 -2 25 7 71
South Carolina 10-2 9 14 11 19 103
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
Wisconsin Offense 17 30 5 34 44 24 45
SC Defense 13 67 38 19 29 44 62
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
Wisconsin Offense 20 7 43 27 21 22 51
SC Defense 36 77 29 44 28 24 73
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
SC Offense 20 25 48 9 22 28 3
Wisconsin Defense 10 18 9 15 5 9 26
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
SC Offense 42 50 75 27 64 98 53
Wisconsin Defense 11 32 22 61 60 53 37
Field Position Adv. FG Efficiency Punt Efficiency Kickoff Efficiency Punt Return Efficiency Kick Return Efficiency
Wisconsin Special Teams 50 77 91 50 54 60
SC Special Teams 88 41 20 81 115 125

Wisconsin's biggest advantages:

The 'Cocks aren't very good at stopping the thing Wisconsin really likes to do. Maybe. South Carolina has an odd relationship with the run this year. The Gamecocks rank 38th in Rushing S&P+ because of suspect performances against suspect run games -- Arkansas averaged 9.1 yards per carry, and a Florida offense with nothing else to offer averaged 4.9.

But against better rushing teams, South Carolina did just fine. Georgia's Todd Gurley rushed for 132 yards, but it took him 30 carries to do so. UCF's Storm Johnson gained 64 yards in 16 carries. Missouri's trio of Henry Josey, Marcus Murphy, and Russell Hansbrough averaged just 4.6 yards per carry.

First-down success is huge for Wisconsin.

Wisconsin, meanwhile, has been mostly incredible on the ground this year. The Badgers averaged at least 5.6 yards per carry in seven of 12 games, using a combination of Melvin Gordon, James White, and (for seven games) Corey Clement to run over and/or around opponents. The end of the season, however, provided a few question marks. Gordon and White still averaged 5.3 yards per carry, but that was a departure from their season average (7.2).

If Wisconsin can establish the run, things will open up just fine. Joel Stave can certainly find targets like Jared Abbrederis and Jacob Pederson downfield at times, but he's a bit error-prone, and South Carolina has an excellent, active pass defense. He'll need help from the ground game (and no early deficits!) if Wisconsin is going to have a solid offensive day.

Wisconsin's defensive line is awesome. The Badgers don't have an extreme presence in the opposing backfield -- they rank just 61st in Stuff Rate and 60th in Adj. Sack Rate. They run more of a Saban-style 3-4 defense, standing up to blockers and forming a brick wall about two yards downfield.

Wisconsin swarms to the ball as well as any SEC defense South Carolina has faced; the Badgers do this mostly because the trio of Pat Muldoon (or Tyler Dippel), Beau Allen, and Ethan Hemer up front can hold their own against anybody.

And while SC running back Mike Davis is a wonderful dual-threat runner (ground or air), the Gamecocks' offensive line is only decent. Wisconsin could very well make this offense one-dimensional, and while the South Carolina passing game is strong, so is Wisconsin's pass defense.

SC's biggest advantages:

Steve Spurrier picks scabsA while back on Rock M Nation, I wrote the following:

Most coaches fit into one of two groups. There are the "process" guys, the guys who try to plan everything they will do on Saturday from Sunday to Friday, the ones who try to account for every contingencies and even, to some degree, plan their spontaneity. Then there are the scab-pickers. They still plan and scout and prepare, obviously, but they're more prone to making major adjustments on the fly, picking at an opponent's scab when they find one.

A good example of the latter is Steve Spurrier. If he finds a weakness to exploit, he will do so ruthlessly; at the same time, he has been known to yank quarterbacks around and/or get too impatient at times. Meanwhile, you know the primary examples of the former: Nick Saban, Gary Pinkel, etc. They're more likely to have a concrete plan to bring to the table, and they're more likely to show patience in sticking with that plan until it begins to break through.

It's easier to beat Steve Spurrier than it is Nick Saban, but it's probably harder to prepare for Spurrier. And if you experience a glitch anywhere, he'll find it. Read option? Long passes? Dump-offs? Between-the-tackles running? Over the course of 60 minutes, South Carolina will figure out what you're not very good at, and while he has his impatient moments, the Gamecocks are patient on the field, ranking third in Methodical Drives.

Wisconsin, meanwhile, has been mostly awesome, but there have indeed been some glitches here and there. The Badgers allowed 6.2 yards per play against Illinois and 8.0 against Penn State; in both cases, opponents found some success through the air. South Carolina, by the way, ranks ninth in Passing S&P+. Granted, No. 2 receiver (and No. 1 deep threat) Damiere Byrd is out, but Bruce Ellington and Nick Jones will give Wisconsin's secondary plenty to deal with.

The Gamecocks can hold steady on first-and-10. First-down success is huge for Wisconsin. It's huge for ALL teams, mind you, but the reason the Badgers have been so sound this year is because they dominate first down. The Badgers rank 17th in Standard Downs S&P+ on offense and 10th on defense. But Carolina is 20th on offense and 13th on defense.

Granted, the Gamecocks aren't nearly as good in passing downs defense as one might imagine with an all-world talent (Clowney) lined up at defensive end, but the base defense, with tackle Ksley Quarles in the middle, active SPUR linebacker Sharrod Golightly in the middle, and a pair of aggressive corners in Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree, the base defense is pretty salty.

Overreactions for 2014

We tend to overreact to particularly positive or negative bowl results when it comes to projecting forward for the next season. How might we overreact to this game?

Name five players from this South Carolina team. Chances are, the first five names you come up with are Jadeveon Clowney, Connor Shaw, Kelcy Quarles, Mike Davis, and Bruce Ellington. Shaw is a senior, Clowney and Quarles are juniors who will almost certainly end up getting picked pretty high in April's NFL Draft, and Ellington is weighing going pro as well. At this moment, only Davis is coming back for sure.

The Gamecocks should be quite experienced on the offensive line and in the back seven of the defense, and this will still be a strong team, but from a perceptions standpoint, they will likely be expected to take a step backwards next season, and almost nothing they do in a bowl will probably change that.

Wisconsin, though? A win would be huge for perceptions of the Badgers moving forward. Melvin Gordon has announced that he's coming back to Madison, Stave is just a sophomore, and eight of 10 players on the offensive line are underclassmen. This offense will be awesome even without James White and Jared Abbrederis.

Granted, the front seven of the defense is reliant on seniors (as in, six of seven starters and a couple of key backups), and that's an enormous red flag, but from a perceptions standpoint, we're never quite as worried about the defense. Put on a good offensive show and beat South Carolina, and Wisconsin probably starts the 2014 season in the top 15.

Summary

F/+ Projection: Wisconsin 26, South Carolina 23
Win Probability: Wisconsin 63%

On paper, Wisconsin holds slight advantages here, even with the strange, season-ending loss to Penn State. The offense-defense matchups are each splits, basically, and the Badgers hold an overall edge on special teams (as do most teams against South Carolina). That's enough to give the Badgers the nod.

This game is all but guaranteed to be close, and the numbers see something in the Badgers that the Gamecocks don't. But if this game is still close into the fourth quarter, it's hard to pick against the Gamecocks, with Shaw, Clowney and a masterful scab-picker on the sideline.

This is easily the most interesting of the non-BCS January 1 games, and it could be interesting for 60 full minutes.

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