Birmingham Bowl: USF vs. South Carolina game preview

TV: ESPN

Time: 2 p.m.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Former head coach Willie Taggart has departed for Oregon but 25th-ranked South Florida still has plenty to play for when it faces 6-6 South Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl on Thursday afternoon at Legion Field.

For one thing, new head coach Charlie Strong will be evaluating his squad, which will be directed by interim head coach and wide receivers coach T.J. Weist. For another, junior quarterback Quinton Flowers, the American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year, can get a head start trying to impress voters for the 2017 Heisman Trophy.

Flowers was one of five players listed as early 2017 Heisman contenders by the Associated Press earlier this month joining Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, USC quarterback Sam Darnold, Texas quarterback Shane Buechele and Penn State running back Saquon Barkley.

The explosive Flowers has accounted for a program-record 37 touchdowns (22 passing, 15 rushing) so far this season and his 1,425 yards rushing are the second most for an FBS quarterback, just 113 behind Heisman winner Lamar Jackson of Louisville. Flowers, Jackson and Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald are the only players in the nation to both pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards this season.

“He’s a competitor,” South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said of Flowers. “He’s got a competitive edge about himself that you really appreciate as a coach. He’s got the ‘it’ factor as far as the intangible things that you want a quarterback to have.”

He also has a pretty good supporting cast.

Junior running back Marlon Mack has twice led the AAC in rushing, has 14 career runs of 40 yards or more yards and 20 100-yard rushing games in his career, including seven this season. Senior wide receiver Rodney Adams was a second team all-AAC pick with a team best 60 receptions for 755 yards and five touchdowns while running back D’Ernest Johnson also earned second team all-AAC recognition after rushing for 516 yards and eight touchdowns, catching 22 passes for 198 yards and four TDs and averaging 24.3 yards on kickoff returns.

USF (10-2) has won four straight games since a 46-30 loss at AAC champion Temple and brings in a streak of scoring at least 30 points in 16 straight games, longest in the nation.

“They run the ball extremely well,” Muschamp said. “They’ve got all the outlets off the run game, so if you load the box they’re able to get the ball on the perimeter. They’re a fast team. They’ve got really good speed. They run extremely well. They create a lot of space plays. They create a lot of 1-on-1 situations where you’ve got to tackle very good skill guys in space.”

Meanwhile, South Carolina (6-6) had to win four of its last six games to become bowl eligible and enter off a 56-7 loss at Clemson. The Gamecocks, who start seven true freshmen including quarterback Jake Bentley (93-for-147, 1,030 yards, six touchdowns, two interceptions), rank just 119th nationally in scoring offense (19.3) and 117th in total offense (336.4 yards per game) and rely on a defense that ranked 10th nationally in turnovers gained (25) while allowing 24.8 points per game.

South Carolina had notable wins over Tennessee (24-21), Vanderbilt (13-10) and Missouri (31-21) and also defeated East Carolina of the AAC, 20-15. USF, which already has set a school record for most wins in a season (10), also defeated the Pirates, 38-22, this season.

“It would be a huge boost to go out 11-2, on top of an SEC opponent and probably going into the next season ranked,” USF senior safety Nate Godwin said. “It would be a great way for Charlie Strong to start off his career (here). We’re playing for a lot.”