JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – No one should expect Notre Dame and South Carolina to look — or probably play — like they did late in the regular season.
The teams are essentially shells of themselves right now.
The 19th-ranked Fighting Irish (8-4, No. 21 CFP) and the 20th-ranked Gamecocks (8-4, No. 19 CFP) will be without several of their best players when they meet in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl on Friday. Their first matchup since 1984 is more like a preview of 2023 than a wrap of 2022.
Notre Dame, which averaged 40 points while winning five consecutive games before losing to Southern California in the regular-season finale, will be without quarterback Drew Pyne, All-American tight end Michael Mayer, standout edge rusher Isaiah Foskey, cornerback Cam Hart and defensive lineman Jayson Ademilola.
The Gamecocks, coming off huge upsets of Tennessee and Clemson, are even more short-handed. They will be without running back MarShawn Lloyd, versatile tight end Jaheim Bell, tight end Austin Stogner, defensive lineman Zacch Pickens, safety Devonni Reed, cornerbacks Cam Smith and Darius Rush and receivers Josh Vann and Jalen Brooks.
Notre Dame is a 3 1/2-point favorite, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
Several of the defectors — Mayer, Foskey, Pickens, Reed, Smith and Rush — are getting a jump on preparing for the NFL draft. Pyne, Lloyd, Bell and Stogner entered the transfer portal with plans to play elsewhere. Hart, Ademilola and Vann are injured. Brooks is dealing with an undisclosed, off-field issue.
They left behind huge holes for both programs to fill with just a couple weeks of practice.
“With opt-outs, you don’t know. You don’t know what you’re going to see,” Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman said Thursday. “We’ll have an idea. We’ll have the base concepts that they do on offense and defense and special teams, but we obviously have to prepare for some different wrinkles and things we haven’t seen.”
The Irish will turn to sophomore Tyler Buchner to replace Pyne. Buchner, a dual-threat quarterback, started and lost the first two games of the season before having shoulder surgery. Pyne started the next 10.
“I think he’s ready to roll,” Freeman said. "You talk about a guy that hasn’t played football for probably Week 2 to Week 12. He had some time where he wasn’t on the practice field. He’s been magnificent in practice. He’s done a great job of leading the offense.”
South Carolina, meanwhile, will have one significant constant on offense: quarterback Spencer Rattler. The former Oklahoma star came on strong in November. He completed 72% of his passes for 798 yards, with eight touchdowns with two interceptions, in wins against then-No. 5 Tennessee and then-No. 7 Clemson.
Now, the Gamecocks are trying to win three consecutive games against ranked teams for the first time in school history. But coach Shame Beamer refuses to focus on the players who have left in the past month.
“There are guys that made plays in those games that are here in Jacksonville now,” he said.
NO MAYER, MAJOR PROBLEM
Playing without Mayer could be the biggest adjustment for the Irish. The fiery team captain had at least one catch in all 36 games he played in his college career and finished with 180 receptions for 2,099 yards and 18 touchdowns.
“You don’t want to overhaul things too much,” Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees said. “But you got to push other guys and spots to step up and make critical plays. … But it will be a little different. Mike is a hell of a player.”
Notre Dame and South Carolina have this in common: they both beat Clemson this season and combined to knock the Tigers out of the College Football Playoff.
The Irish beat Clemson 35-14 in South Bend, Indiana, in early November. The Gamecocks upset the Tigers 31-30 in Clemson in the Palmetto Bowl to end the month.
Notre Dame is making its fourth appearance in the Gator Bowl and first since losing to North Carolina State 28-6 in 2003. South Carolina is playing in the Gator Bowl for the fifth time and first since 1987. The Gamecocks are winless in Jacksonville.
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