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Outback Bowl Preview – Michigan vs. South Carolina

December 31, 2012

Outback Bowl

THE BASICS 

Opponent: South Carolina Gamecocks (10-2) 

Location: Raymond James Stadium Tampa, Florida 

Kickoff: 1 PM, January 1, 2013 

Line: South Carolina -5

SETUP 

Coming off of an 11-2 season and a Sugar Bowl victory, many Michigan fans expected to spend New Year’s in Pasadena rather than Central Florida – though with the reminders of the RichRod era still fresh in everyone’s mind, nobody is complaining that much.  And frankly, after a lackluster 2-2 start, this feels about right.  South Carolina started its season 6-0 including a blowout win over then #5 Georgia, climbing as high as #3 in the national polls. But a close loss to LSU and a blowout loss at Florida brought the Gamecocks back to earth.  As a 10 win team, they could argue they should be playing in a more high profile bowl – but there are six SEC teams that fit that description, so the Gamecocks are looking forward to their 2nd ever 11 win season.  

Crazy Stat:  5 of the 6 combined losses between these two teams were to the Top 5 teams in the country (Alabama, Notre Dame, Ohio State, LSU, and Florida)

KEY MATCHUPS

Taylor Lewan vs. Jadeveon Clowney:  When I initially wrote this, I inserted Jake Long for Taylor Lewan which shows you how important this matchup is for Michigan and for Taylor Lewan.  Clowney is arguably the best pass rusher in the country, with 21 sacks in 2 years, and 13 this year.  Lewan is already ranked highly on many draft boards – if he shows he can matchup well with Clowney, he could skyrocket up draft boards much like Jake Long did in the 2008 Draft.  More importantly for Michigan, the offense will sputter all day long if they can’t figure out a way to contain Clowney.  He’ll absolutely make plays, but Michigan can’t allow him to dominate.  

The Old Ball Coach vs. Greg Mattison: Steve Spurrier is an excellent coach who always has a few tricks up his sleeve.  Greg Mattison is one of the best defensive coordinators in all of football (pro or college).  Both will bring surprises to the table for this game – the question will be which unit adjusts better, the Michigan defense or the South Carolina offense.  

Balancing Quarterbacks: Connor Shaw has been the SC starting QB for most of the year, but after a 300 yard 3 touchdown outburst against Clemson backup Dylan Thompson may get some snaps.  For Michigan, Denard Robinson has been the 3 year starter in Ann Arbor, but an arm injury and the ability of Michigan to diversify its offense with Devin Gardner at QB and Robinson elsewhere means that Michigan will also probably see both players take snaps at quarterback.  Whichever team better manages their QB rotation and offensive flow will probably find the most success

WHEN MICHIGAN HAS THE BALL 

The Michigan offense is a bit of a wildcard right now.  We’ve seen several different looks this year from Michigan, including both QBs playing wide receiver at some point.  At this point it seems likely that either by necessity or design, Devin Gardner will take most of the snaps at QB, with Denard Robinson playing a variety of roles – running back, quarterback, wide receiver, and maybe even special teams.  For South Carolina, that means they have to know where #16 is everytime he lines up.  But if they focus too much on him, Gardner can burn them with his arm and his feet as well.  After Michigan’s lackluster 2nd half offense in Columbus, plenty of fans are concerned about the ability of Offensive Coordinator Al Borges to use all of his weapons.  It says here that the game plan will be much more to most fans liking on New Year’s Day.  

Whether or not Michigan has success with that game plan will largely depend on Michigan’s ability to contain the SC front four.  The Gamecock defensive line, led by Jadeveon Clowney, is one of the best in the country.  They will be faster than any line Michigan has faced all year.  If Michigan can’t protect the quarterback, it will be a long day.  The best way for Michigan to do that is to establish the run.  With Fitzgerald Toussaint out, the running back duties will fall to a variety of players, but likely Thomas Rawls.  With so much speed on the SC defense, an east west runner isn’t the answer.  Michigan will need to resort to a 3 yards and a cloud of dust approach, and stick with it if only to keep SC honest.  In reality though, I don’t expect any Michigan back to get more than 10-12 carries so the running game may fall on the shoulders of Denard Robinson.  Which raises another question – can Denard throw the ball?  If he can, it opens up an entirely new set of possibilities for the offense.  If he can’t, or if Al Borges doesn’t even feign like he can, South Carolina can key on the run all day long.    

The Gamecock defense is one of the stingiest in the nation and points will be hard to come by.  If Michigan can neutralize the defensive line and force the action to the talented but comparatively weaker South Carolina secondary, they should find some success through the air.  Tennessee put up 368 yards through the air in a 38-35 loss, so contrary to what many pundits may be saying, it is possible to score on South Carolina.  

WHEN SOUTH CAROLINA HAS THE BALL 

Much like the Michigan offense, the South Carolina offense has been inconsistent as well.  A big part of that has been the loss of stud running back Marcus Lattimore who suffered one of the most gruesome injuries in the HD era against Tennessee.  Though Connor Shaw has been very good at time this year at QB (67% completion percentage, 1700+ yards, 15 to 7 TD/INT ratio), South Carolina has to be able to run the ball in order to win.  That responsibility will likely fall to running backs Kenny Miles and Mike Davis.  Neither are in the same class as Lattimore, but they will have to step up and carry the load for the South Carolina offense to be successful.  

Defensively, you can expect Greg Mattison to rely on what he usually does – a conservative defense that forces opponents to make plays repeatedly in order to drive the ball down the field and score points.  While the bend don’t break approach may be frustrating to fans at times – it has proven to work.  South Carolina will have to be able to drive the field in order to score points against Michigan.   With Michigan’s top cornerback J.T. Floyd not playing due to a violation of team rules, look for South Carolina to pick on his replacement Courtney Avery.  Ace Sanders is a fast but small receiver/return man who could give Michigan fits and Bruce Ellington leads the team in yards.  Neither is what I would call a standout receiver, but both can make plays.  

Much like Michigan, the South Carolina defense is definitely stronger than the offense.  If Connor Shaw can consistently complete passes and force Michigan to make tackles in space, the Gamecocks will have the chance to score points.  But for the most part this has not been an explosive offense, and I don’t expect that to change on Tuesday.  

SPECIAL TEAMS 

In a game with two strong defensive teams and offenses still working through their identities, it won’t be a surprise if Special Teams plays a role.  For Michigan, the loss of Will Hagerup to suspension could be a huge one.  Hagerup, though somewhat inconsistent this year, has a big leg and can change field position in one kick.  Matt Wile has filled in admirably in the past, and he’ll need to do so again.  Especially with Ace Sanders returning kicks for the Gamecocks.  Sanders already has one touchdown this year on a punt, and has come close to breaking a couple more.  For South Carolina, both kickers, Tyler Hull (punting) and Adam Yates (placekicking) are solid but unspectacular.  If it comes down to a FG, Yates is 11/15 on the year and does have the ability to make it from 50+.  

Michigan’s strengths on special teams are in placekicker Brendan Gibbons who has made 14/16 kicks this year with both misses coming from 40+ yards.  Gibbons has been as close to automatic as there is this season, and should be a weapon for Michigan.  Also, despite moving to defensive back on offense, Dennis Northfleet looks ready to break a kickoff return everytime he touches the ball – maybe it happens this week.  

RECIPE FOR A MICHIGAN WIN 

  1. Protect the football: It may be obvious, but its true.  Michigan turned the ball over 11 times between games in South Bend and Columbus, and shockingly still should’ve won both of those games.  Against South Carolina, the only way I see the Gamecocks putting up a ton of points is if they are gifted them by Michigan.  Moreover, Michigan won’t get many chances to drive or score, so they can’t waste possessions with turnovers. 
  2. Use Denard: For 2.5 years Denard has been the most exciting and one of the most prolific players in college football.  He’s single handedly one several games for Michigan.  If his arm is healthy, he MUST have the opportunity to throw the ball for the reasons outlined above.  Even if it’s not, he can still be a weapon in a variety of ways.  It would be a disappointment if Denard doesn’t get at least 15-18 touches in this game. 
  3. Run the football: If Michigan can run the football, they will win this game.  The South Carolina front four are as good as there is in college football, so this is a tall order.  But a strong Michigan running game will not only control the clock, but it will force South Carolina to crowd the box and give Michigan one on one situations with their defensive backs, a matchup Michigan can win. 

PREDICTION 

As you can see from above, my recipe for a win focuses almost entirely on offense.  Why?  Because I don’t believe that South Carolina will be able to do much against the Michigan defense, unless they are able to pick on Courtney Avery.  That means that a B+ performance by the Michigan offense will probably win this game.  The only trouble is, I could write the exact same thing about South Carolina.  I expect both defenses to continue to do what they’ve done all year – shut down opposing offenses.  That means the team that takes advantage of turnovers, scores touchdowns in the red zone, and eeks out a couple of big plays should win this game.  I know that South Carolina has woofed this week that Denard is just fast for the Big Ten, but he’s average for the SEC.  I don’t buy that for a second.  Denard has had success with his speed against almost everyone he’s played for a reason – he’s that good.   He’s the best playmaker on either team, and I expect him to do exactly that – make plays (assuming Borges gives him the opportunity).  

For South Carolina, without much promise in the running game, they’ll need a stellar performance from Connor Shaw (or Dylan Thompson if he gets snaps).  It’s possible, but not likely.  Michigan didn’t give up 200 yards passing once this season and even if South Carolina surpasses that, it won’t be by much.  That means they’ll have to score points with an average running attack or through defense or special teams.  

South Carolina might have the better defense, but not by much.  Michigan has more playmakers on offense and the combination of Garnder and Robinson will be much more like the Iowa game than the OSU game.  

Michigan 24

South Carolina 17 

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