In what will be an interesting defensive battle between the Big Ten and the SEC, the Michigan Wolverines (18) meet the South Carolina Gamecocks (10) in this season's Outback Bowl January. 1.
Both teams began the year ranked in the AP preseason Top 10 and have maintained respectable seasons, even without appearing in their respective conference championship games.
Despite ending the season with an 8-4 record, Michigan suffered losses against the currently ranked first-place (Notre Dame), second-place (Alabama and third-place (Ohio State) teams (in addition to losing to Nebraska), so it's not a stretch to say their current ranking may be a bit low based upon their talent level.
The key matchup to watch will be South Carolina's stud sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney against the Michigan offensive line, which has only allowed 15 sacks on the season. Current Wolverine left tackle Taylor Lewan has been stellar this season and vital to the team's success. The O-line must protect current starting quarterback Devin Gardner.
This year's Outback Bowl figures to be a close, but due to their defensive advantage, South Carolina appears to be the favorite.
Injuries have changed the offensive philosophies of both squads, as South Carolina has gone from a power-run program to a speed-driven offense since the loss of running back Marcus Lattimore.
The Gamecocks have replaced Lattimore with Kenny Miles, who has been comparable to the former Freshman of the Year. Against the stout run defense of Michigan, I wouldn't be surprised to see Miles held under 50 yards rushing. However, he is not the key to the South Carolina offense.
While it's not known which quarterback will start against Michigan, I expect Connor Shaw to get the start. He started at the beginning of the season and has proved to be reliable in his almost two years of being the Gamecocks starting quarterback. However, they have a capable backup Dylan Thompson.
Thompson had over 300 yards passing and three touchdowns in the 'Cocks win against rival Clemson. Fortunately for whomever gets the start, they won't have to face Wolverine starting cornerback JT Floyd, who is suspended due to team violations. Receiving-wise, South Carolina failed to establish a steady threat this season; no receiver gained over 600 yards receiving this year.
Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has turned around the school's defense, but it was unable to force turnovers this past season. The Wolverines had just seven interceptions but forced 11 fumbles in 2012.
Look for young linebackers Kenny Demens and Jake Ryan to lead the team in tackles. It'll be interesting to see the this powerful, big Wolverine defense go against their faster SEC opponent.
Likewise in the jury department, Michigan lost their four-year starting quarterback Denard Robinson to an elbow injury. Unlike Lattimore, Robinson has been able to play with his injury and has no exclusively focused on playing running back and wide receiver instead of passing.
The Michigan offense is the unknown in this game, as it is still adjusting to not having Robinson behind center. Gardner is expected to start and has thrown for over a 1,000 yards with eight touchdowns this season.
Whereas Robinson isn't expected to factor into the passing game, he did simulate to over 100 yards on under carries. However, I don't expect Robinson to get that many snaps, especially since he won't be seen as a threat to throw due to the elbow. It'll be interesting to see if he'll get snaps at receiver—a position he could potentially play in the pros.
The matchup of Clowney against Robinson should produce multiple highlights. Clowney has been a beast all season, recording 13 sacks and 21.5 tackles for a loss. He'll be competing against Lewan, who, if he were to leave early for the 2013 NFL draft, projects as a top-15 selection.
The defense as a whole combined for 28 total turnovers, recording 14 interceptions and forcing fumbles. While head coach Steve Spurrier may be known for his offense ingenuity, his defense will be the talk of the game. I wouldn't be surprised with a handful of sacks from Clowney and company; look out for an interception or two caused against Gardner as well.
Though the Outback is one of six different bowls to be played on New Year's Day, it's arguably the most interesting matchup of any of the games. I'm not sure which Michigan offense we'll see, but the SEC should be on upset alert. Assuming Shaw starts and plays at a high level, I'm taking South Carolina 31-28 in a closely contested game.