TAMPA — As the South Carolina football team arrived at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay hotel Wednesday afternoon, the lobby buzzed with activity as the coaches and players checked into their new home for the next week.
That excitement soon will give way to the reason for this season — playing in the Outback Bowl against Big Ten foe Michigan on the first day of 2013.
After the Gamecocks broke a three-game bowl losing streak last season with a resounding victory against Nebraska at the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, they once again don’t want their fun to end on game day.
“You just make sure everybody knows it’s a business trip,” senior spur DeVonte Holloman said. “We’re going to have our fun, but when it’s time to work on Michigan at practice, everybody has to come focused and ready to work hard.”
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, whose teams are 2-4 in bowl games in his previous seven seasons guiding the program, believes his players learned something from last year’s bowl experience.
“It’s a fun trip. We’ve all learned at South Carolina that it’s a lot more fun to win the game,” Spurrier said. “I believe we’ve got a more mature group of guys that will try to really get ready to play the best we can and not treat it like a vacation.”
The No. 11 Gamecocks (10-2) finished the regular season with four consecutive wins and can tie a single-season school record of 11 victories set last season by defeating No. 19 Michigan (9-3). The Wolverines got to Tampa last week to start their practices, but Spurrier believes a week at the bowl site is enough to get his team ready to go.
The Gamecocks last played on Nov. 24, when they defeated rival Clemson in an impressive road victory. The win against the No. 14 Tigers was the fourth in a row in the rivalry and has the players believing good things are ahead.
“I believe coming off the Clemson game that we found a whole other level of chemistry between our team,” junior receiver Ace Sanders said. “The energy throughout that whole week was pretty different, and it just keeps leading up to this game.”
This game should be a tough test for South Carolina, which features a defense ranked fourth in the SEC. Led by sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting, the Gamecocks play with intensity on that side of the football. In last season’s bowl win, they shut out Nebraska the final three quarters.
Holloman expects this year’s unit to get after the Wolverines, especially after resting and healing over the holiday break.
“Time off always energizes our team so you’ll see people flying around like they weren’t doing in Columbia. We’ll have a lot more energy,” Holloman said.
Spurrier is confident his team can pick up where it left off in November.
“Sometimes, a month off affects teams,” he said. “Hopefully, it won’t affect ours too much, and we’ll play pretty close to how we played at the end of the season.”
On offense, Spurrier still expects to play Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson at quarterback. Thompson had a huge game against Clemson while filling in for the injured Shaw.
“They both have earned a right to play,” Spurrier said. “I don’t know how it’s going to play out. I don’t know which one is going to play more. We’ll have to go into it and see what happens.”
The Gamecocks are hoping for a better showing than their last visit to Raymond James Stadium, which ended with a 31-10 loss to Iowa in the 2009 Outback Bowl. After posting 21 wins the past two seasons, Spurrier is convinced his team knows what it needs to do this time around.
“We hope we have good concentration and focus,” he said.