Stout competition was the norm for the Michigan Wolverines this year.
Bouts with—and unfortunately, losses to—the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Alabama Crimson Tide surely provided lessons.
A season-ending blunder against the Ohio State Buckeyes added another "what-did-we-learn" moment for Michigan, which faces the SEC's South Carolina Gamecocks on New Year's Day in the 2013 Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla.
Through it all—the injuries, the quarterback situation, coaching miscues and inconsistent play—the Wolverines managed to finish the year with an 8-4 record and compete for a Big Ten Legends Division title and conference championship, giving at least a couple of reasons to fondly reflect on the year that passed.
“I think it’s always a benefit when you play good football teams whether you win or lose,” Wolverines coach Brady Hoke told the Associate Press. “You learn how you have to play. We have to do a better job of taking care of the football, have to run the ball better."
Now, the task at hand is defeating the 10th-ranked Gamecocks, who finished third in the loaded SEC East with a 6-2 record highlighted by a resounding 35-7 triumph over the Georgia Bulldogs, who face the Big Ten's Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Capital One Bowl.
It'll be difficult, sure. The SEC is known as the nation's strongest league.
The Big Ten?
Well, it was a league that failed to impress—maybe that's not the best term to use, though. In reality, the Big Ten had two legitimately good teams in Penn State and Ohio State, but neither are eligible to play in the postseason due to sanctions.
Are the Wolverines in over their heads? They can help their league save a little face, you know.
Will the 2012 season come to a screeching halt Jan. 1 against South Carolina, or will the Wolverines shock an SEC team and claim one for the Midwest?
We'll get into the specifics as the bowl draws near, but for now, here's a short wish list for the Wolverines, who have about four weeks to prepare for their next challenge.
Denard Robinson going out a winner is top priority
No one man makes up a team.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
We've all heard that spiel before.
Shoelace made Michigan football something to see, despite his team losing to subpar programs and becoming the joke of college football while under coach Rich Rodriguez.
However, it didn't take long for the Wolverines to rise above the basement level that Rodriguez put them in for three years.
Michigan hired Hoke and went to the 2012 BCS Sugar Bowl—and won—during Hoke's first year in control.This year was supposed to be the year Michigan won the Big Ten (according to fans), but instead it was the year in which Robinson was injured, unable to make his typically dazzling plays late in the season due to nerve damage in his right elbow.
He did return—even made a statement or two with 60-yard rushing touchdowns. He even lost his shoe.
Yeah, that was vintage Robinson.
Michigan owes Robinson—yes, Michigan owes Robinson—a bowl win over South Carolina. What other way would be better than to send out the speedy senior with another trophy or ring?
He deserves it.
Seeing what Gardner can really do will be important for future
Devin Gardner was supposed to be a fill-in for Robinson, but he became much more than that during a three-game winning streak in which he completed 60 percent of his passes and scored by foot and by air.
What's in store for Michigan? Well, if Gardner is truly the real deal, he'll have to prove it against a good SEC defense that allowed 17 points per game.
A compelling outing from Gardner would only complement a Michigan victory—should it happen, of course. Even with defeat, if Gardner has a respectable four quarters against South Carolina, Michigan fans will have more than enough reason to look forward to the spring game and fall of 2013.
Living the dream, Jordan Kovacs style
Walking on at Michigan was the first of senior safety Jordan Kovacs' collegiate football goals. You can be that beating South Carolina would be the grand finale in terms of his journey.
From battling knee injuries to becoming one of the Big Ten's top safeties, Kovacs has certainly carved out quite the reputation at Michigan—he's a Wolverines fan favorite and exhibits the true blue-collar work ethic that's romanticized in athletics.
Good for him. Give Kovacs credit for all that he's done while in Ann Arbor. But most of all—and this is directed to the rest of the team—give him a win against South Carolina.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81