South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier is well aware that his team is getting a reputation for fading down the stretch. He hopes the Gamecocks can buck that trend by beating an Iowa squad that's surging into the postseason.
The Gamecocks look to avoid their third straight defeat and end what could go down as another late-season collapse Jan. 1 in the Outback Bowl against the Hawkeyes, who have ridden running back Shonn Greene and one of the nation's best defenses to five wins in their last six games.
South Carolina (7-5) became bowl eligible with six wins in a span of seven games from Sept. 20-Nov. 8 before closing the regular season with back-to-back losses. The Gamecocks were routed 56-6 by Florida on Nov. 15 -- the worst loss of Spurrier's illustrious career -- before falling 31-14 to Clemson on Nov. 29.
That was Spurrier's third loss in four games against archrival Clemson since taking over at South Carolina, and it was the third time in his four seasons that the Gamecocks have faded down the stretch.
They dropped their last two games in 2005, including an Independence Bowl loss to Missouri, and finished 2007 on a five-game losing streak that kept them out of the postseason.
Spurrier was vocal with his criticism of his players over the last several weeks of this season, particularly after the finale, during which he benched star tight end Jared Cook in the second half for lack of effort.
"We are 7-5 and it is what it is," Spurrier said after that game. "We will try our best to represent South Carolina better (in the bowl game) than we have these past two games."
After learning that his team would be headed to Tampa, Spurrier said he'd try a more relaxed approach in preparation for the bowl game.
"We are going to try to be a little bit more positive. Maybe, I've been a little negative at times," he said. "... We are going to try our best to regroup with our team. We are going to try and be encouraging and positive and try to get our confidence back here between now and game time."
Senior receiver Kenny McKinley is anxious for the opportunity to end the season on a high note, something South Carolina has accomplished just once in the last six years -- a win over Houston in the 2006 Liberty Bowl.
"We lost our last two games," McKinley said. "A win could salvage our season."
The Hawkeyes (8-4) are coming into this game with a completely different attitude, having overcome a three-game losing streak with five wins in their last six games, including 24-23 over then-No. 3 Penn State in their only game against a ranked opponent this season.
"It was a lot of fun," coach Kirk Ferentz said after Iowa capped its late-season surge with a 55-0 rout of Minnesota on Nov. 22. "It didn't start out easy. Credit goes to our players. They hung in there and in the end a lot of good things happened."
Many of those good things were accomplished by Greene, the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and the Doak Walker Award winner as the nation's best running back.
The 5-foot-11, 235-pounder ran for 206 yards in 10 games in 2006 and sat out last season because he didn't meet academic standards, then returned to set a school record with 1,729 rushing yards this season. He was the only Football Bowl Subdivision back to rush for at least 100 yards in every game.
Greene's success helped Iowa rank second in the Big Ten with 30.3 points per game while recording its highest win total since going 10-2 in 2004. The Hawkeyes combined for a 12-13 record over the previous two seasons and didn't get a bowl invitation despite being eligible in 2007, their first time without a postseason appearance since 2000. Ferentz said that adds extra significance to this year's bowl.
"It's like a player missing a year," he said. "I think they appreciate their opportunities a little more. Certainly for us to be back and playing in a great bowl, that's going to make it that much better for us, so we're thrilled."
While Greene led a much-improved offense, the Hawkeyes may have been even more impressive on the other side of the ball. They held opponents to 13.3 points and 289.5 yards per game, ranking eighth and 12th in the FBS, respectively.
The defense gave up nine points or fewer five times, and kept Iowa in each game it played -- the Hawkeyes' four losses were by a combined 12 points.
The Gamecocks also held their own defensively, ranking 11th in the FBS with 288.9 yards allowed per game, including 160.3 in the air -- the third-best pass defense in the nation.
That should provide a challenge for Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi, who threw for 987 yards, eight touchdowns and three interceptions in the Hawkeyes' last six games after starting the season in a backup role.
South Carolina will also turn to a former backup under center in freshman Stephen Garcia, who was named the starter for the bowl game after Chris Smelley threw four interceptions -- all of which led to touchdowns -- in the regular-season finale.
In seven games this season, Garcia was 56-for-104 for 753 yards, six touchdowns and five interceptions.
"I'm really excited about it," said Garcia, a native of nearby Lutz, Fla. "It's a big opportunity for me as a quarterback and for the team in general."
This will be the third appearance for both teams in the Outback Bowl, where the Hawkeyes are 1-1 and the Gamecocks are 2-0. Iowa and South Carolina are meeting for the first time.