The Michigan Wolverines will face the South Carolina Gamecocks in this year's Outback Bowl, a New Year's Day game that takes place in Tampa, Fla.
It wasn't the bowl the Wolverines set their sights on, but the Outback Bowl is one of the best non-BCS games in the nation––a worthy consolation for a season gone awry.
Their opponent is nothing to scoff at, either. The No. 10 Gamecocks went 10-2 this season, losing only to SEC rivals (and fellow Top 10 teams) Florida and LSU. Up until last weekend, they were also the only team that could say they beat Georgia, handing the 'Dawgs a 35-7 smackdown in early October.
South Carolina is a 5.5 point favorite, a fair line considering the SEC's superiority over the nation's other leagues.
So this game is a big one for the Big Ten. Here are four guys Michigan must stop if they want to pull an important upset.
DE Jadeveon Clowney
More so than any college defender not named Manti Te'o, Clowney has dominated opposing offenses all season long.
The top-rated recruit in the country coming out of high school, Clowney's second year has been an exercise in potential realized. He was decorated with the Ted Hendricks Award (via chronicle.augusta.com) as the nation's top defensive end, becoming the first sophomore to ever win the award.
He saved his best for last, too. After racking up 8.5 sacks in the Gamecocks' first 10 games, he exploded for 4.5 in their last game vs. Clemson. Against one of the nation's premier offenses, he looked like a man among boys, helping his defense hold the Tigers to 17 points.
Michigan's offense isn't exactly one of the nation's elite, either.
What they do have that Clemson didn't, however, is Taylor Lewan. The first-round NFL prospect is one of the best offensive linemen in college football, drawing occasional comparisons to former Wolverine Jake Long.
Watching he and Clowney go at it should be a real treat, and it could determine the outcome of the game.
QBs Dylan Thompson and Connor Shaw
The Gamecocks and Wolverines find themselves in eerily similar predicaments at quarterback.
In both cases, the more mobile, incumbent starter has been replaced at times by a very successful backup.
Here's the difference: While Devin Gardner and Denard Robinson will both be playing for Michigan, they won't both be playing quarterback. Gardner has earned that role, while Robinson and his incredible elusiveness will probably be used at tailback and receiver.
For South Carolina, however, both Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson are expected to line up under center against Michigan.
Thompson played fantastic against Clemson, passing for 310 yards and three touchdowns. Many Gamecock fans have been clamoring to see him get more reps, but Shaw has played the majority of snaps this season.
Whichever of the who that plays will pose a threat to the Wolverines defense. Both QBs enjoyed great seasons, and they're both capable of finding a rhythm. Michigan will need to shut them down to have a chance in this one.
S D.J. Swearinger
The Senior safety has enjoyed a wonderful farewell campaign in Columbia. With 71 total tackles and two interceptions, he's been a stalwart for South Carolina's 13-ranked scoring defense.
He's played so well, in fact, that the SEC coaches elected him to the conference's second team defense (via espn.com). They elected three safeties and only one corner, presumably believing that neither Swearinger, Georgia's Bacarri Rambo nor Alabama's Robert Lester could, in all good conscience, be left off the team.
Swearinger has made his biggest impact in some of the Gamecocks' biggest games. He had ten tackles against both LSU and Tennessee and turned in a jaw-dropping performance against Arkansas––finishing with 13 tackles and a 69-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Michigan has allowed blue-chip defenders to ruin them in coverage this season (*cough* Manti Te'o *cough*), and if they aren't more careful in Tampa, Swearinger could augment that trend.