Brady Hoke's second season with Michigan didn't go quite as expected
They're playing a quality opponent in a quality bowl game.
But why is there still a sour taste in the mouths of Michigan Wolverines fans?
The truth is, an 8-4 record and a New Year's Day date with the South Carolina Gamecocks in the 2013 Outback Bowl would have been reason for most teams in the country to celebrate.
A prime spot on television to ring in the new year, going head-to-head with a great SEC team—at least half of the Big Ten would have jumped at that offer had it been extended prior to the season's start.
But for one reason or another, that's not quite good enough for the Wolverines, who posted an 11-2 record in 2011 and won the 2012 BCS Sugar Bowl.
Nope. It was Big Ten title, Rose Bowl/comparable BCS bowl or bust. Outdoing last season wasn't only a possibility, it was expected. Opening the year against the Alabama Crimson Tide was supposed to be Michigan's grand way of showing the nation it was back and that 2011 wasn't a mere fluke.
Were you optimistic after loss to Alabama? Was it season-defining?
No way. Brady Hoke had it all under control, and some felt Michigan could potentially do no wrong this fall.
The 41-14 trouncing courtesy of the Tide sure opened a lot of eyes. Michigan was immediately smacked by a national power, essentially being dismissed from the elite equation—at least for the time being.
But that loss to Alabama wasn't the only time Michigan failed this year, it's just probably the most embarrassing of a series of follies that led to undesired results in winnable games against Notre Dame, Ohio State and Nebraska.
Where did Michigan go wrong -- what exactly was the problem?
Misuse of athletic Robinson-Gardner duo
We could open this by saying hindsight is 20/20. But that would be cliche, right?
The Wolverines always knew about the potential of a Denard Robinson-Devin Gardner backfield, but it wasn't until Robinson was injured that Michigan further explored the use of the pair together as one.
Gardner was at wide receiver to Robinson when he suffered ulnar nerve damage in his right elbow during Michigan's 23-9 loss to the Nebraska Cornhuskers in Lincoln. He was inserted at quarterback after Russell Bellomy was drowned in misery by Nebraska and went 3-1 as a starter.
Gardner wasn't ineffective as a receiver, but he could have been more creatively utilized earlier in the year. He had just three catches in a 13-6 loss to Notre Dame, a game in which Robinson tossed four passes to the Irish and fumbled once.
Robinson had a difficult time in the pocket. Perhaps mixing up play calling and catching the Irish off guard would have helped the Wolverines get into the end zone. Some type of reverse play or pitch-and-catch involving the Robinson-Gardner package could have had results.
Wolverines didn't tap well of running backs enough
It was one of the most sensitive and extensively debated issues of the season for Michigan—how much would Fitzgerald Toussaint play a part in the game plan this fall after eclipsing 1,000 yards a sophomore in 2011?
And that argument became more heated each week—he was a slow starter, and continued sputtering along before his unfortunate, season-ending leg injury against Iowa (click here for SB Nation Toussaint .gif).
Sophomore Thomas Rawls showed promise each time he took the field. The Flint native averaged 4.2 yards per carry, second behind Robinson (and those with more than 20 totes), scored four touchdowns and ended the season with 242 yards.
Now, those aren't groundbreaking numbers, but remember that Rawls did all of that during sporadic action—and on just 57 carries. Toussaint scored five touchdowns, averaged four yards per carry and rushed for 514 yards.
And that was with 130 touches.
Needless to say, Rawls will have a lot to prove come New Year's Day. Does he want to be the No. 1 back? He'll have to impress, especially if five-star running back Derrick Green of Virginia (c/o 2013) chooses Michigan.
Play calling was atrocious in key games
Denard Robinson's completion-to-interception ratio against the Irish was just better than 3:1—and that's never good, especially when he completed just 13-of-24.
And yet Robinson was left in at quarterback. Maybe Gardner could have been brought in after the first two interceptions. Maybe, as mentioned above, Michigan could have fused Robinson and Gardner together, using their speed and athleticism to somehow break down Notre Dame's defense.
Gardner wasn't exactly busy with three catches. Matter of fact, he was hardly targeted. Robinson averaged 5.8 yards per completion, likely caused by throwing picks when attempting to hit deep targets.
Michigan had a tendency of leaving quarterbacks in shark-infested waters, ask Russell Bellomy, who was at the mercy of a hungry Cornhuskers defense after Robinson left the game.
It was demoralizing to watch Bellomy throw interception after interception.
The kid never had a chance.
And it's probably best not to bring up the Ohio State game at this juncture.
Michigan wasn't a lost cause this season. In fact, considering all the circumstances, Michigan's season wasn't as bad it could have been.
Capping 2012 with an Outback Bowl win is a must for Michigan. A win over an SEC team capable of playing with just about any team in the land would do wonders for momentum during this rebuilding period.
However, Michigan can't cling to hope if it commits similar types of blunders that knocked it out of the Big Ten championship/BCS bowl-bid race.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81