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.
The Wolverines had their sights set on bigger, rosier bowls at the season's onset. And while they didn't accomplish those goals, the Outback is one of the most respected consolation prizes on the bowl calendar.
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. Their signature victory came over Georgia, a 35-7 dismantling in South Carolina that put the country on notice. Up until last week, they were the only team that could say they beat the Bullogs.
The SEC is favored in every bowl game, this one's no different; they're giving 5.5 points to the Wolverines.
So this game is a big one for the Big Ten. Here are three Michigan players that must show up big if they want to pull the upset.
QB Devin Gardner
The SEC defenses get a lot of the love––and with good reason––but it's subtly a conference dominated by good quarterback play. From Johnny Manziel to Aaron Murray, and even from A.J. McCarron to Tyler Bray, these South Carolina defenders have faced some of the best QBs in the nation.
And they've either held their own, or dominated them.
So when Devin Gardner comes waltzing onto the field this January, they are not gonna be intimidated whatsoever. They are not gonna be intimidated by the Maize and Gold. They're gonna rush him, put him under pressure, and dare him to make on-the-fly decisions.
Gardner doesn't have much experience, but he'd better be up to the task.
He's looked great throwing the football in limited action (much better than Denard Robinson, anyway), finishing the year with over 1,000 yards on only 90 attempts.
But against the best defense he faced, Ohio State, he struggled a little bit, only completing 11 passes for 171 yards.
The Gamecocks will stubbornly refuse to let Michigan run the ball. And if Devin Gardner isn't up to the challenge of exploiting that, it could be a long day for the Wolverines.
S Jordan Kovacs
South Carolina isn't exactly an offensive juggernaut. But they're a sound, well-coached unit that can beat you in a bunch of ways.
Second-team All-Big Ten safety Jordan Kovacs, the heart-and-soul of Michigan's defense will be tasked with shutting them down.
Kovacs has come up big in huge games before. Most notably, in their fiercest rivalry (sorry, Buckeyes) with Michigan State, he had five tackles and a huge interception––helping secure a hard-fought 12-10 victory.
South Carolina is expected to rotate between Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson at the quarterback position. They both bring their own strengths and weakness, something Kovacs will have to discern in the film room, and efficiently communicate to his teammates.
As the leader, and best player, on Michigan's defense, Kovacs will have to keep the unit as organized and precise as South Carolina's offense. Otherwise, they can kiss this game goodbye.
OT Taylor Lewan
In the matchup all NFL scouts will be keeping their eyes on, two future first-round picks––Michigan's Taylor Lewan and South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney––will duke it out all game long.
Clowney won this year's Ted Hendricks Award as the nation's top defensive lineman––the first sophomore to ever do so. The former No. 1 recruit's season was an exercise in potential realized: He finished with 13 sacks, including 4.5 in their most recent win over Clemson.
But Lewan is no slouch on the line. He was voted to the All-Big Ten for th first time, and is projected by many––if he comes out, that is––to be a top-10 draft pick.
He's even drawn comparisons to former Wolverine Jake Long.
He'll have his work cut out for him, but if he can at least slow down Clowney (there's no way to actually stop him) it'll take away the Gamecocks' top defensive weapon.
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