Three weeks ago, when Southern California upset Notre Dame, Dan Devine was not the only coach cursing the Trojans for playing so well. Jim Carlen, South Carolina's coach, was almost as disappointed.
"Until that game, we had ourselves a nice friendly bowl game," Carlen said today. "Now, Pittsburgh is thinking about the national championship. That changes things."
It also sets up Monday's Gator Bowl (WJLA-TV-7, 9 p.m.) between Carlen's Gamecocks (8-3) and Jackie Sherrill's 10-1 Pittsburgh team as the first non-New Year's Day bowl in many years that can have a bearing on the national championship. In fact, with Heisman Trophy-winner George Rogers in South Carolina's backfield, Heisman runner-up and Lombardi Trophy-winner Hugh Green on the Pitt defense and Outland Trophy-winner Mark May on the Panther offense, this game can match almost any in terms of glamour and big names.
And, because Notre Dame's loss to Southern California dropped it from No. 2 to No. 7 in the national polls, third-ranked Pittsburgh comes in knowing it can still finish the season ranked No. 1 if the Irish beat top-ranked Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, if Oklahoma beats second-ranked Florida State in the Orange Bowl, and, of course, if the Panthers win.
"There's no question we've got a lot more to gain and a lot more to lose out of this game than South Carolina does," said Sherrill. "We know we're still involved in a national championship. They're ranked 18th. If they win, they're still not going to finish in the top 10, maybe not even the top 15.
"But this is a very mature team. We're the only team in the top three right now that was there at the start of the season, so we've dealt with pressure all year. I think we can handle it."
While Pitt, national champion in 1976, a bowl participant seven of the eight seasons, is used to the spotlight, and even revels in it, South Carolina is playing in only its third bowl game in the last 25 years and has never won more than eight games in a season.
"This is the biggest game in our school's history," Carlen said. "A lot of people haven't given Rogers the credit he deserves for winning the Heisman and this is our chance to show people that South Carolina is for real as a football program."
Rogers finished the season with 1,781 yards rushing and has gained at least 100 yards in 21 consecutive games. Sherrill said today the key for his team will be offensive control, keeping Rogers from carrying the ball 40 times.
"If he carries that often, then they can pass when they want to and they'll be effective," Sherrill said. "If we force them to throw, then they might be in trouble."
On the other side of the coin, Pitt will throw the ball, regardless. The Panthers have two quarterbacks capable of destroying secondaries. A year ago, Rick Trocano was hurt in the sixth game of the season. Freshman Dan Marino took over and led the Panthers to an 11-1 finish. He also established himself as a rising star. Trocano, now a senior, realized he wasn't going to unseat Marino so he went to Sherrill during spring practice and asked for a chance to compete for the open free-safety spot, even though he had never played defense.
Sherrill wasn't so sure he wanted his backup quarterback messing around on defense. But he felt he owed Trocano a chance. Trocano promptly earned the starting spot at safety.
He stayed at that spot for five games this season. Marino started well, picking Maryland apart in a 38-9 victory the fourth week of the season. A week later, Pitt turned the ball over seven times and lost, 36-22, to Florida State. Then, in the first quarter against West Virginia, Marino's tender knee went out again.
"I had been stepping across to offense at times during practice to take some snaps so I just pretended it was practice," he said. "I was into the game mentally because I was playing, so in some ways it was easier than if I had just come off the bench cold."
Trocano tossed two touchdown passes in a 42-14 rout that day, went on to finish the regular season as the holder of all the Pitt passing records and played a key role in the Panthers' 14-9 victory over Penn State that put them in position to win the national title.
He will start in the Gator Bowl.
"I stuck with Danny last year so it would be inconsistent if I didn't stick with Rick now," said Sherrill. "Dan has dealt with the situation well. There's just no way to take Rick out the way he's played."
And, because pollsters are influenced by final scores, Pitt will go into the game thinking not just of winning, but of winning big. All the Panthers from Sherrill down claim they are only thinking of winning. But they have been here for two weeks now and have put up with days like today -- blustery, overcast and in the low 40s -- all week.
Today, as they sat around their hotel, it was clear they wanted to get on with the game. "We came here to do a job," Hugh Green said. "A big job. You don't get a chance to win a national title often."
Especially in the Gator Bowl.