Outback Bowl preview: Michigan vs. South Carolina

Outback Bowl preview: Michigan vs. South Carolina

Michigan is still seeking that elusive breakthrough season under Jim Harbaugh, who is in his third year in Ann Arbor. It didn’t happen in 2017. But the Wolverines will be making their Big Ten-high sixth appearance in the Outback Bowl, taking on South Carolina from the SEC.

Who can forget the last time these teams met? It was in the Outback Bowl after the 2012 season, a 33-28 South Carolina win. And Gamecock DE Jadeveon Clowney made an epic hit on Michigan running back Vincent Smith. Count on seeing that play re-played 10,298 times between now and kickoff.

These teams have met three times overall, as the schools split two meetings in 1980s. South Carolina’s 17-14 win in Ann Arbor in 1980 was spearheaded by running back George Rogers, who would go on to win the Heisman that year. Jim Harbaugh quarterbacked Michigan to a 34-3 win in Columbia, S.C., in 1985, hitting 12-of-22 passes for 164 yards and running for 45 yards and a TD.

The Wolverines have gone 3-2 in the Outback Bowl/Hall of Fame Bowl, with appearances after the 1987, 1993, 1996, 2002 and 2012 seasons. Michigan won vs. Alabama (1987), North Carolina State (1993) and Florida (2002) and lost to Alabama (1996) and South Carolina (2012).

The Wolverines have compiled an 8-5 record against the SEC in bowl games. This will be the 35th time that Michigan faces an SEC school (25-8-1 mark), with the program starting and finishing the 2017 season against the conference; Michigan opened the year with a 33-17 victory over Florida in Arlington, Texas.

Led by coach Will Muschamp, South Carolina finished second in the SEC East behind playoff participant Georgia, going 5-3 in conference play. Two of Carolina’s four losses this season came to teams that are in the playoff: Georgia and Clemson. The Gamecocks are the only Power Five conference team to improve their record by more than one win in each of the past two years.

South Carolina will be making its fifth trip to the Outback Bowl. The Gamecocks are 3-1 in previous appearances with back-to-back wins over Ohio State in the 2000 (24-7) and 2001 (31-28) seasons, and a 31-10 loss to Iowa in the 2008 season, before posting the 33-28 win over Michigan after the 2012 season.

Expect a low-scoring affair, as these teams have trouble scoring. South Carolina is 98th in the nation in scoring, averaging 24 points. Michigan is tied for 86th at 26 points per game. Both teams also rank outside the Top 100 in total offense. South Carolina coach Will Muschamp had seen enough, firing offensive coordinator Kurt Roper earlier this month. WR coach Bryan McClendon will call plays in the Outback Bowl for a Carolina offense that was impacted big-time by injury. The loss of WR Deebo Samuel in September was killer.

***

OUTBACK BOWL
Who: Michigan (8-4) vs. South Carolina (8-4)
When: noon ET, Jan. 1
Where: Tampa, Raymond James Stadium

Player on the spot: Michigan RB Karan Higdon. With Michigan’s passing game a bit spotty due to injuries at quarterback, the Wolverines will need to run the ball well. That means Higdon has to be on his game for the No. 3 rush attack in the Big Ten (186.3 ypg). He paces the club with 929 yards on the ground. No doubt, South Carolina All-SEC linebacker Skai Moore will keep an eye on him. Moore paces Carolina with 88 tackles, 48 of which came against SEC opponents.

Best individual matchup: Michigan LB Devin Bush vs. South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley. Bush is an active force and arguably the top player on a Michigan defense that ranks No. 3 in the Big Ten in scoring (18.3 ppg); No. 2 in total defense (268.6 ypg); No. 1 in pass defense (142.7 ypg); No. 6 in run defense (125.9 ypg). Bentley is a rising talent who has hit 226-of-362 passes for 2,555 yards and 16 touchdowns. His top targets are Bryan Edwards (59 catches for 705 yards and 4 TDs) and Hayden Hurst (41 catches for 518 yards and 2 TDs).

Best unit matchup: Nothing enticing jumps out. So, let’s say whichever defense excels will win this game. Each unit is stout, meaning yards and points figure to be difficult to come by. Wolverines DC Don Brown is known for exotic schemes and has been dubbed “Dr. Blitz.” Muschamp has a famous reputation as a DC. Keep an eye on Michigan defenders Bush, DE Rashan Gary, DE Chase Winovich, LB Khaleke Hudson and DT Maurice Hurst, who lead a rugged front seven.

Number: 46, bowl games for Michigan. Only Nebraska (54), Ohio State (49) and Penn State (48) have more among Big Ten schools.

Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

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, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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