Outback Bowl: Michigan vs. South Carolina

Michigan came close to winning the Legends Division but still is in search of its first league title since 2004. A win here would prime the program for a strong run in 2013, as this is a young roster. Three of the team’s four losses were to the top three teams in the nation: Notre Dame; Alabama; Ohio State. The other was to 10-win Nebraska.

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The Gamecocks never had an 11-win season in program history until last season. A win over Michigan would be the school’s second in a row. Yes, Steve Spurrier has things percolating in Columbia, S.C., for a team whose only losses were to LSU and Florida. By the way: These schools haven’t met since 1985.

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Michigan (8-4) vs. South Carolina (10-2), Tampa, Fla., Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN

Player of the spot: Michigan QB Devin Gardner. The guy has been a revelation since taking over as quarterback for Denard Robinson, winning three of four starts. Gardner has allowed the Wolverine offense to open up and become more pass-oriented—and more effective overall. The junior has a bright future—as well as some nice targets to work with in wideout Roy Roundtree and tight end Devin Funchess.

Top individual matchup: It doesn’t get much better than Michigan junior offensive tackle Taylor Lewan vs. South Carolina sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who paces the SEC with 13 sacks and won the Hendricks Award as the nation’s top end. Lewan was named the top offensive lineman in the Big Ten. Each is a likely future first-round draft choice. Sit back and watch each first-team all-conference choice battle. Someday, you can tell your kids all about it.

Top unit matchup: South Carolina offensive line vs. Michigan front seven. Even without stud running back Marcus Lattimore—who is out for the season with a knee injury—this still is a physical Gamecock offense that wants to pound the rock. Center T.J. Johnson is an anchor up front. But the Wolverines have a strong front seven for a defense that ranks No. 2 in the Big Ten (311.2 ypg) but is just No. 6 in the league vs. the run (156.0 ypg).

Fast fact: Michigan has suspended three players for violating team rules, with the biggest losses being cornerback J.T. Floyd and punter Will Hagerup.

Michigan Leaders
Passing Yards: D. Robinson 1319
Passing TDs: D. Robinson 9
Rushing Yards: D. Robinson 1166
Rushing TDs: D. Gardner 7
Receiving Yards: J. Gallon 684
Receiving TDs: D. Funchess 5
Interceptions: T. Gordon 2

Three reasons for optimism:

1. Denard Robinson. You just know the Florida native wants to go out on a high note in his home state in his last game as a Wolverine. Receiver? Running back? Quarterback? It won’t matter what spot Robinson plays. He will be motivated to excel and to break Pat White’s FBS career record for quarterback rushing yards.

2. Defense. Wily coordinator Greg Mattison has done another good job with a defense that was maligned under Rich Rodriguez. The Wolverines have one of the top linebacking corps in the Big Ten led by Jake Ryan. Michigan is No. 2 in the nation in pass defense (155.2 ypg).

3. Roy Roundtree. The senior wideout has been a big beneficiary of Devin Gardner taking over at quarterback. Since the quarterback switch, Roundtree has 378 yards receiving in the last four games. He will need to stretch the South Carolina defense to open room in the ground game. Defensive back D.J. Swearinger must help keep an eye on Roundtree.

South Carolina Leaders
Passing Yards: C. Shaw 1732
Passing TDs: C. Shaw 15
Rushing Yards: M. Lattimore 662
Rushing TDs: M. Lattimore 11
Receiving Yards: B. Ellington 564
Receiving TDs: A. Sanders 7
Interceptions: D. Holloman 3

Three reasons to worry:

1. This is a good South Carolina defense that ranks No. 4 overall in the SEC (312.3 ypg). The Gamecocks are No. 4 vs. the run (119.0 ypg) and No. 5 vs. the pass (193.3 ypg). Can a sputtering Michigan offense—especially the run game—get traction? South Carolina has allowed 20 or fewer points in nine games this season.

2. Running back production. With top back Fitz Toussaint out with injury, Michigan will lack pizzazz at running back. But even with Toussaint, the Wolverine ground game lacked oomph. Vincent Smith? Thomas Rawls? Someone must make some plays from the tailback spot.

3. The Gamecocks are hot, riding a four-game winning streak. Meanwhile, Michigan enters the bowl coming off a loss at Ohio State in which the offense did zippo in the second half. And which QB will start for South Carolina? Dylan Thompson or Connor Shaw? Something else for Michigan to fret about.

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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