It may not have been the game they envisioned in the preseason, but the Michigan Wolverines are less than two weeks away from playing in their second straight January bowl game when they take on the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day.
Michigan will come into the contest having had a month to stew on its loss to Ohio State to end the season and looking to end on the right note. However, the oddsmakers have the Gamecocks as 5.5-point favorites (via Vegas Insider) and the Wolverines only taste of the SEC came in a Week 1 shellacking at the hands of Alabama.
Nevertheless, Brady Hoke's squad does have a chance to win on Jan. 1—just as long as it executes in a few critical areas. With that in mind, here is a look at what the Wolverines must do to come out on top.
Keep Denard Robinson in Hybrid Role
With a bunch of time to prepare and heal, it's a popular narrative that Denard Robinson should be the starting quarterback for the Wolverines in his last collegiate game. That's all well and good and a nice sentiment, but should only happen if he's the "starting quarterback" in name only.
Instead, Brady Hoke should continue using Robinson in the same hybrid role he did during Michigan's last two regular-season games. Utilizing Robinson's other-worldly athletic ability while making up for his injured arm, the team lined him up at quarterback, running back and wide receiver to keep the opposing defense honest.
The results were fantastic. Robinson gained 220 yards on just 23 carries, proving himself as an explosive force even when the threat of a pass is negligible.
Remember, Robinson had long outlived his usefulness as a pocket passer before the injury. As a starting quarterback, Robinson had completed just 53.6 percent of his passes and thrown as many interceptions (nine) as touchdowns.
Meanwhile, Devin Gardner, who converted back to quarterback from receiver, came in and trounced Robinson in terms of passing efficiency. The 6'4" junior completed 63.3 percent of his passes, throwing eight touchdowns against half as many interceptions as well.
Even if Robinson feels healthy, this is a no-brainer. Gardner is the quarterback, Robinson is the guy who comes in to scare everybody senseless.
Prepare More for Connor Shaw Than Dylan Thompson
South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier is on record saying that Connor Shaw will start in the Outback Bowl, but both quarterbacks will get work, according to 247Sports' John Whittle (subscription required).
In theory, that's a nice sentiment. However, I have a feeling Spurrier's offensive game plan is going to need Shaw even more than he realizes.
Since Marcus Lattimore's injury, the Gamecocks have essentially used scotch tape offensively and schedule luck to win their games. Backup Kenny Miles averaged just 3.6 yards per carry in the regular season and has a long run this season of only 17 yards. That isn't exactly inspirational and South Carolina will have to run the ball well against this Michigan defense.
Shaw adds a dual-threat element to the Gamecocks offense that Thompson simply does not. Though Shaw gained only 339 rushing yards this season, that figure is far more impressive when considering sacks count against his totals.
His foot injury is obviously a question mark, but if Shaw is healthy enough to play then his mobility should be in fine form. Thompson's downfield passing ability may excite South Carolina fans, but Shaw is undoubtedly the better option and Spurrier will realize that early on.
Create Sustained Drives, Avoid Turnovers
It's the most basic of all football rules. The team that turns the ball over the least amount of times usually comes out ahead on the scoreboard.
However, when facing South Carolina, that universally accepted rule becomes even more important. No matter whether it's Shaw or Thompson behind center for most of the contest, the Gamecocks will have trouble getting points on the board offensively. They weren't the most prolific offense in the nation with Lattimore and averaged only 372.4 yards per game.
Instead of ping-ponging the ball down the field, South Carolina played the field-position game better than just about any other team in the land. Forcing 3-and-outs and short drives was the team's specialty.
The Gamecocks also were among the SEC leaders with 14 interceptions.
If Gardner is able to avoid throwing the ball to the opposing team and lead the team down the field for strong drives (even if they don't always end in points), it would pin the Gamecocks deep into their own territory. That would force them to play an uncomfortable game and put the Wolverines at a distinct advantage.