Happy New Year! Penn State may be home for New Year’s Day for the first time in five years, but there is plenty of football action to keep us satisfied all day. For better or worse, 5 of today’s 6 games feature Big 10 teams, three of which pit our conference brethren against the SEC. Buckle up, indeed. Two of the premier early games take place in Florida, with Michigan taking on South Carolina in Tampa at the Outback Bowl, and Nebraska returning to Orlando and the Capital One Bowl for the second straight season, this time against the Bulldogs from Georgia.
A year removed from a BCS win in the Sugar Bowl against Virginia Tech, Michigan took a step back this year, wrapping up an 8-4 (6-2 Big 10) campaign with a trip to Tampa, Florida and the Outback Bowl. Their reward? One time top #3 South Carolina (10-2, 6-2 SEC), and one of the nation’s top defenses. Denard Robinson will wrap up a record setting career with the Wolverines against 2013 Heisman favorite, all everything defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
How They Got Here
Michigan opened the season in Cowbows Stadium against #1 Alabama, and, well, it didn’t go well. Alabama cruised to a 41-14 win. 3 weeks later, Michigan would travel to South Bend and fall to then #11 Notre Dame in 13-6 defensive struggle. While the 2-2 record after non-conference play was not where Big Blue expected to be, both of their losses wound up being to national title game participants. Michigan went 6-2 in Big 10 play, falling to Nebraska and Ohio State on the road. The former came after Robinson missed much of the game with a nerve injury in his elbow, the latter in Columbus against 12-0 Ohio State. The Wolverines were carried by their defense, which ranked 16th nationally in scoring. Devin Gardner has replaced Robinson at quarterback, and provides a better passing option, but Robinson will still see plenty of the ball.
The Gamecocks raced out to a 6-0 record, including a dominant 35-7 win over SEC runner-up Georgia, and a #3 ranking nationally. Life in the SEC caught up to Steve Spurrier. First came a trip to Death Valley under the lights against #9 LSU, which ended in a 23-31 loss. There was no break as a visit to The Swamp and #2 Florida followed, with a 44-11 beating. USCe would rebound the following week with a tough 38-35 win over Tennessee in Columbia, but they lost All American runningback Marcus Lattimore to one massive leg/knee injury. The Gamecocks would win their final 3 games as well, including a big W over in-state rival Clemson, to earn their trip to Tampa.
Jadeveon Clowney vs. Taylor Lewan
You’ve probably heard of the former, but not the latter. Clowney has been a star since his arrival in Columbia, and has been downright dominant at his defensive end position. If he was eligible for the draft, he would be a lock to go #1. Taylor Lewan has anchored Michigan’s offensive line from his left tackle position, and has quietly played his way into a bona fine top 15 pick. They may not go head-to-head every play, as Clowney will come off both the left and right end, but when they do, it will be interesting to see how one of the best pass protectors handles a guy that no one has had answer for in two seasons.
Devin Gardner vs. South Carolina Secondary
Devin Gardner took over for Michigan in their 35-13 win over Minnesota, which followed Robinson’s elbow injury in Nebraska, and Russell Bellomy’s….less than stellar efforts in Lincoln. All Gardner did was throw for just over 1,000 yards and 8 touchdowns in Michigan’s final 4 games, posting a 3-1 record. Gardner did struggle to some degree in Columbus against the best defense he faced, but the Wolverines never really figured out how to utilize both Garder and Robinson. Devin gets the start again at QB, and he will need to contend with one of the nation’s stingiest defenses, and a secondary that has picked off 14 passes this season.
Neither team fields what you would call a potent offense. South Carolina ran the ball over 150 times more than they went to the air this year, and only threw for 2,700 yards. Michigan’s strength on defense has been in stopping the run, and that becomes even more pronounced with starting CB J.T. Floyd suspended for the game. Michigan will need to find a way to get the ball to Robinson and allow him to use his speed and athleticism. Expect tailback Fitz Toussaint to get a heavy workload too. However, I think South Carolina’s superior athleticism on both sides of the ball will prove to be too much for Michigan. It will be close on the scoreboard, but the Gamecocks will win comfortably.
South Carolina 16