It’s always fresh in the Outback is a steakhouse slogan that doubles for the bloomin’ bowl game. The SEC vs. Big Ten matchup has been one of the best non-BCS bowls in recent years. Since 2000, three games have gone to overtime — including last year’s triple-overtime classic between Michigan State and Georgia — and eight have been contests decided by one-score margins.
In this year’s game, Michigan will be wearing alternate uniforms — the eighth jersey color scheme combination since Brady Hoke took over college football’s winningest program last season. Luckily for traditionalists who “Hail to the Victors,” the Wolverines will still be wearing their classic winged helmets.
Outback Bowl — South Carolina (10–2) vs. Michigan (8–4)
Date and Time: Jan. 1 at 1 p.m. ET
Location: Tampa, Fla.
When the South Carolina Gamecocks have the ball:
Ol’ ball coach Steve Spurrier has been pitching-and-catching less at South Carolina than he did during his Fun n’ Gun days at Florida. That was easier before star junior tailback Marcus Lattimore suffered a devastating knee injury against Tennessee on Oct. 27.
Without Lattimore, South Carolina has turned to playmakers like receivers Ace Sanders and Bruce Ellington — who have a combined to haul in 27 catches for 367 yards and five TDs in the three games since Lattimore went down.
A less serious injury, to dual-threat starting quarterback Connor Shaw’s left foot, forced the Gamecocks to take to the air with backup Dylan Thompson, who attempted 41 passes and threw three TDs during a 27–17 win over rival Clemson. Although Shaw is expected to start, Spurrier will return to his Gator-armed days of keeping a short leash on his passers by implementing a two-quarterback gameplan that also features Thompson.
Michigan will be playing without several defenders, having senior cornerback J.T. Floyd and senior linebacker Brandin Hawthorne, along with Big Ten punter of the year Will Hagerup, all to suspension. The U-M’s No. 57-ranked rush defense (156.0 ypg) will be tested, but defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s No. 16 scoring defense (18.3 ppg) has been bending without breaking all season, allowing over 21 points just four times.
When the Michigan Wolverines have the ball:
By far the best individual matchup of the entire bowl season will take place between a pair of AP first-team All-Americans in the trenches. Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan (6’8”, 310) and South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (6’6”, 255) will have NFL scouts packing Raymond James Stadium for a peek at two elite first-round prospects. Clowney led the nation with 13 sacks and 21.5 tackles for a loss as a sophomore and is hoping to enter 2013 as a Heisman Trophy candidate.
“I believe a defensive player can win the Heisman next year. … That’s my next thing, New York,” said Clowney, who could kick start his campaign with a big game against Lewan.
Michigan will be without running back Fitz Toussaint due to a broken leg, but the dynamic quarterback duo of Devin Gardner and Denard Robinson should be able to pick up the slack. Gardner took over the starting quarterback job after an arm injury suffered by Robinson. In just four games, Gardner has thrown for 1,005 yards, eight TDs and four INTs, while scrambling for 77 yards and another seven TDs on the ground and posting a 3–1 record.
But since this is the last game in Maize-and-Blue for “Shoelace” as well as a Florida homecoming for the Deerfield Beach native, don’t be surprised if Michigan opens up the playbook for the school’s all-time leader in total yards (10,669) and total TDs (91). Robinson has thrown for 1,319 yards, rushed for 1,166 yards and accounted for 16 total TDs. Used exclusively as a runner in the last two games, Denard X posted 23 carries for 220 yards, on 9.6 yards per carry, and one TD.
South Carolina lost only twice this season, in a 23–21 tight fight in Death Valley at LSU and a 44–11 blowout in The Swamp at Florida the following week. Meanwhile, Michigan lost twice as many games, but against elite competition — Alabama (41–14), at Notre Dame (13–6), at Nebraska (23–9) and at Ohio State (26–21). Together, the Gamecocks and Wolverines lost to six teams with a combined 67–7 record.
These are two of the more competitive, battle-tested teams in the country. Expect another close call in this year’s Outback Bowl, with the Clowney and the Gamecocks defense doing just enough to tangle Shoelace and the Wolverines offense.
Prediction: South Carolina 27, Michigan 24
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