This is the first inaugural bowl preview, and I must say, I’m a bit salty that it isn’t for a more meaningful game than just the Outback Bowl. I’ll break down both team’s offenses and defenses, then provide you with a score prediction. South Carolina is a good squad and they will provide Michigan with a tough matchup; just be happy that Marcus Lattimore isn’t healthy, otherwise it might have been a route.
The biggest news for the bowl game came out on New Years Eve. Brady Hoke said that Devin Gardner will be the starting quarterback, and Denard Robinson will play, but won’t start. This isn’t completely surprising since Denard says that he is still not throwing the ball 100% the way he would like to. The only wrinkle here is this will probably mean that if he records the necessary yards to break Pat White’s quarterback rushing record that they will not count as quarterback rushing yards. That being said, Gardner getting the extra reps at quarterback during bowl practice and playing in the bowl game is huge. This way they can get him ready and more experience for next year, since Gardner has been pegged as the starter for the next two years.
The running game will completely depend on Denard. The Michigan staff says that they will do a runningback by committee-esque strategy. Meaning, since Fitzgerald Toussaint went down, no one has emerged as a guy that can carry the load. The receivers will be led by the same guys that have been doing it all year, and Roy Roundtree has emerged as Gardner’s favorite target. The only player to keep an eye on, because he might get a little more playing time, is Amara Darboh. He’s been on special teams this whole year, but after playing well in bowl practices, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him take a bit of a bigger role in the bowl game. I’m interested to see a lot of the young players and to see how they progressed during the extra two weeks of bowl practices.
South Carolina Offense:
Connor Shaw is the starting quarterback for the Gamecocks, but after a rough year, expect Dylan Thompson to take some snaps at quarterback. Shaw is very mobile, think Taylor Martinez but a better passer. He could kill the Michigan defense, and neither quarterback turns the ball over much.
If you have a weak stomach, do not watch this video.
Since Marcus Lattimore went down, the starting runningback has been Kenny Miles. He’s a good back, but he’s no Lattimore. He’s been averaging 3.6 yards per carry and only has a long of 17 yards. He’s efficient, but he’s not the offensive player I’m concerned with. That honor has been bestowed upon Ace Sanders.
Sanders took over the #1 receiver spot when Alshon Jeffery graduated, and while he hasn’t been nearly as productive as Jeffery, he is extremely dangerous. Sanders can score anytime he touches the ball, and is an unbelievable punt returner.
The kid has some skills and I hope Matt Wile, who will be punting in place of Will Hagerup, chooses to kick the ball out of bounds rather than kick it to Sanders. He is a game changer, and Steve Spurrier will do whatever he can to get the ball in his best playmakers hands.
This unit has been overachieving all year. No coordinator in the country has done more with less than Greg Mattison. Without J.T. Floyd, the secondary will take a huge hit. Courtney Avery is not a starting caliber corner. He’s a good nickel corner, but that’s about it. Raymon Taylor has emerged as a solid starter, and when Blake Countess is back next year, their corners will be rock solid. The issue with Avery is that it will allow for less man-coverage, and a lot more zone coverage will be played in the secondary. Avery is a guy that Ace Sanders can chew up and spit out with ease. Obviously Jordan Kovacs will play another key part during this game with J.T. Floyd out, and he will be relied upon more in the passing game than usual.
In order to help the secondary, it’s going to be crucial for the front seven to play well and to get as much pressure on Connor Shaw as they can. Will Campbell has played well down the stretch, and he is going to be needed to continue to anchor the defensive line. Frank Clark will also need to have a big game, and I would expect Jake Ryan to have a huge impact as well. I’m very pleased with our linebacking core; especially when you look at what we will have next year. Like the offense, I can’t wait to see what James Ross, Joe Bolden and some of the other younger guys will do. This extra bowl practice time is utterly crucial to their development.
South Carolina Defense:
The obvious question, how do you block Jadeveon Clowney? This guy is a freak and will probably be a Heisman contender next year. He absolutely shreds offensive lineman and had 21.5 tackles for loss, 13 sacks this year, including 4.5 sacks (!!!) against Clemson. He honestly scares me, and as far as I’m concerned he will be a Top 3 pick next year, and should probably go #1. Hell, he’d probably go in the Top 3 this year if he was eligible. Meanwhile, it’s not as if he is the only player on the South Carolina defense; they are ranked 12th in the Country for points against and average only 17.4 against. Not to mention they are ranked in the Top 15 against the run. Taylor Lewan is going to have his hands full with Clowney, and Michigan is going to need to find a way to keep him away from Gardner.
Safety D.J. Swearinger is a force for the Gamecocks and he can make some serious plays on the back end. They don’t have any great cornerbacks, but their two starters are pretty solid. Nothing that should scare anyone though. Their linebackers are strong and good tacklers, but that’s pretty standard for the entire SEC. Their front seven is their strength, and the Michigan offensive line is going to have their work cut out for them on New Year’s Day.
I see this being a defensive struggle. Michigan has struggled to put up points against far worse defenses, and even with the emergence of Gardner, I don’t see this being a shootout. I think Michigan has a very solid defense, even without Floyd, and that South Carolina’s offense will be able to be held in check for most of the game. If Lattimore was healthy, then we are talking about a whole different ball game. If Michigan/Denard have trouble running the ball, and Clowney is in the backfield a lot, this will be a brutal game to watch. I have faith that this won’t happen though.
I think we will see a big game out of Denard. It’s his last game of his collegiate career and it is in his home state. This game, even more so than the Iowa game will be his NFL tryout. If he can be productive at RB/WR/KR against an SEC team, his stock will shoot through the roof. Hoke said that Denard has been practicing a bit on the return team, and I really want to see what he can do back there. I think Michigan will end up surprising everyone, including me and will manage to get some points on the board. The Seniors will step up and get the job done; a 21-17 final, and the Wolverines cap off the season on a high note.