With no bowl invitation on the line, the University of Akron football team will play for pride at noon Saturday against host South Carolina.
The Gamecocks will have something far more substantial on their minds — at 6-5, even while flying the SEC banner, they likely need a win to ensure entry into a bowl game.
Coach Terry Bowden understands the Zips' indisputable reality: There will be no postseason game for UA's most successful Division I senior class.
The Zips seniors will have gone to bowl games twice in their four seasons. They won a Mid-American Conference East Division title in 2017. And, in what is probably the primary source of local pride, they have four consecutive wins over rival Kent State.
A makeup for the Week 1 game at Nebraska that was canceled because of inclement weather, Saturday's game represents a chance for the Zips to duplicate what they accomplished in Week 3 against Northwestern but didn't get a chance to do against the Cornhuskers — post a big upset. Of course, that won't be easy, Bowden said.
“There will be some mismatches out there [for South Carolina], that's one thing we have to be aware of,” Bowden said. “Certain positions just by the nature of the two teams, there will be some mismatches out there.”
For the Gamecocks, success begins with quarterback Jake Bentley, the second-ranked quarterback in the SEC and 14th best nationally at 275.4 passing yards per game. Bentley, who holds numerous Gamecocks records, is on several postseason watch lists at his position. Overall, he’s completed 65 percent of his passes for 2,754 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Bowden is a realist. He understands that although the Gamecocks don’t consistently represent the best of the SEC, they still have their share of top-tier athletes. Advantages for the Zips may be few.
“I don't know that we have as many of those, but if we did, we're going to identify those,” he said. “There are some areas we think we may [be able to take advantage].”
That one area is at quarterback.
Zips starter Kato Nelson (6-foot-1, 215 pounds) showed signs of improved health last week when he was again able to cut and run as well as throw the ball effectively. In a 49-28 loss last week to Ohio, he threw for 356 yards and four touchdowns on 24-of-41 passing. It’s not a stretch to assume he’s close to 100 percent.
Nelson has taken to the role of putting the team on his shoulders as the season has worn on, and there’s little reason to think he won’t do the same against the Gamecocks, especially with the weapons he has at wide receiver in Andre Williams, Kwadarrius Smith and Jonah Morris.
If the Zips are to have a chance, Nelson might have to do that once again. And a win over South Carolina would go a long way toward mitigating the disappointment of a subpar season.
George M. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByGeorgeThomas.