No. 10 South Carolina and No. 18 Michigan are set to square off in the 2013 Outback Bowl on January 1, as the SEC and Big Ten square off with conference supremacy and tradition at stake for both schools.
For Michigan, losing out on the Big Ten Championship Game and defeat to rival Ohio State have left a sour taste in the mouths of head coach Brady Hoke's team that won't easily leave.
Facing South Carolina with a month of preparation will be a tough task, as the Wolverines will have to contend with a top-tier defense and Steve Spurrier's offense, as well as the hype that comes with facing an SEC team.
Here's a look at three guys poised to be X-factors for the Wolverines in the Outback Bowl; these are guys that could make-or-break Michigan's chance to send its seniors off the field with a trophy one final time.
What: Outback Bowl
When: Tuesday, Jan. 1 at 1:00 p.m. ET
Where: Raymond James Stadium; Tampa, Fla.
X-Factors for Wolverines
No one has been more important to the Wolverines over the past month than the QB-turned-WR-turned-QB.
Gardner has over 1,000 yards passing and eight touchdowns through the air, while scoring seven rushing touchdowns on just 77 yards. Gardner has been a red-zone touchdown machine since becoming a QB again, and he'll have to have that same dual-threat ability against the Gamecocks.
With Denard Robinson likely lining up beside him and the South Carolina defense faster than the rest of the Big Ten, we'll see how long it takes Gardner to prepare for the Gamecock speed. If he has more than one turnover against this defense, I don't think Michigan stands a chance.
LT Taylor Lewan
Lewan gets the matchup with Jadaveon Clowney, the sixth-place finisher in the Heisman Trophy race this year. Even though much is made about these two potential NFL products, Lewan is trying to stay team-first, as reported by ESPN's Chantel Jennings:
Lewan: It's about the University of Michigan and South Carolina, not me and Clowney.— Chantel Jennings (@ChantelJennings) December 7, 2012
The starting left tackle can say that all he wants, but all eyes will be on these two during the Outback Bowl. With Clowney an early Manti Te'o-type player for 2013, can Lewan keep him away from Gardner?
If he can, the Wolverines can set up more designed plays that take advantage of his over-aggressiveness. If he can't, Michigan will have to rely on Gardner's scrambling ability more than the gameplan will like.
SS Jordan Kovacs
Much has been made of the fifth-year senior and his journey from walk-on to starter at Michigan. He'll have his hands full with Ace Sanders and the rest of these South Carolina receivers, all speedsters with the ability to catch and run.
Additionally, he'll be tasked with keeping Kenny Miles in line, while also making sure Connor Shaw doesn't have a field day on the ground. Kovacs has a lot of responsibility within this Michigan defense, as does LB Jake Ryan.
In his last game at his dream school, Kovacs can go out with a bang by making big plays and playing co-captain to a defense that could struggle with South Carolina's speed and preparation. Facing the old ball coach is never fun, so this secondary needs to be ready.
Ethan Grant is a featured columnist for B/R's Breaking News Team and the Dallas Mavericks page on the site.