Michigan's season was never supposed to end in Florida.
After Brady Hoke led them to last season's Sugar Bowl, and with Ohio State and Penn State serving postseason bans, the Wolverines had their eyes set firmly on Pasadena and the Rose Bowl.
It didn't happen. The Wolverines lost to the top 3 teams in the final AP regular-season poll Alabama, Notre Dame and Ohio State and added a loss to Nebraska when Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges replaced an injured Denard Robinson with Ron Bellamy. Bellamy melted down, throwing as many interceptions (3) as completions, and was quickly replaced by Devin Gardner for the next three games.
Robinson, still unable to throw, returned for the final two games as a runner and decoy, but then was mysteriously benched with Michigan only needing a touchdown to upset Ohio State in the series finale. The touchdown never came, as the Buckeyes defense shut down Michigan's offense once they didn't have to worry about Robinson's game-changing talent.
So California turned into Florida, and even the Capital One Bowl and Disney World turned into the Outback Bowl and Tampa Bay. The Wolverines will face South Carolina and Steve Spurrier. The Gamecocks went 10-2, despite a tough SEC schedule, only losing at Florida and at LSU. Their most impressive win of the season came on Oct. 6 when they routed then-No. 5 Georgia 35-7 in Columbia.
At that point, the Gamecocks were 6-0 and ranked third in the country, but they lost 23-21 to LSU in the next game and were blown out 44-11 by Florida a week later. They won their last four games, but in the nation's toughest conference, that was only good enough for the Outback Bowl.
WHEN MICHIGAN HAS THE BALL
If South Carolina does Michigan and the fans the favor of lining up superstar defensive end Jadeveon Clowney on the right side, it could provide for an epic battle with the Big Ten's Offensive Lineman of the Year Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan. The problem is that, given Michigan's weak spots on the line, Spurrier isn't likely to leave Clowney in one spot and play into the Wolverines' biggest strength.
And even if he does, it may not matter. Lewan had a tremendous season, but Clowney might be the most dominant defensive lineman in college football since Ndamukong Suh wreaked havoc at Nebraska. In 12 games as just as a sophomore, he has 13 sacks and 20 tackles for loss, leading him to a sixth-place finish in the Heisman voting an award he thinks he can win next season. If he were eligible for the NFL draft, he'd be a top-5 pick, but unfortunately for college quarterbacks everywhere, he'll be back next season, going for a spot on the podium in New York.
Of course, Michigan has another problem before they even have to face Clowney they've got to figure out who is going to play quarterback. And tailback. Robinson still hasn't thrown a public pass since the Nebraska game, although he did toss a Nerf ball from the stands to Hooper while attending a recent Pistons game. That was the good news. The bad news? He missed the receiver by several feet and was nearly intercepted by Pistons center Greg Monroe.
The logical expectation is that Michigan will use a lot of formations including both Gardner and Robinson. Gardner has provided Michigan with a big-play passing game, and Robinson's speed means that he is going to draw the attention of multiple defenders on every play. Hoke has never explained why the Wolverines went away from this strategy in the fourth quarter against Ohio State, but he has hinted that it will be back in the playbook for the Outback Bowl.
Robinson's superback role tailback, slot receiver and Wildcat quarterback would also take some pressure off Michigan's underwhelming running game. Although Robinson had his usual performance, no one stepped up to help him. Fitzgerald Toussaint struggled all season behind the porous offensive line, then sustained a major leg injury late in the season. That leaves Thomas Rawls and Vincent Smith, neither of whom has played well this year.
WHEN SOUTH CAROLINA HAS THE BALL
The Gamecocks offense was built around star running back Marcus Lattimore, but like Toussaint, his season was ended early by a horrific leg injury. In Lattimore's case, it was a dislocated right knee and severe ligament damage that ended his college career he has already announced that he will enter the NFL draft rather than return for a senior season that would be damaged by injury.
South Carolina also lost starting quarterback Connor Shaw to a late-season ankle, leaving the offense in the hands of backup quarterback Dylan Thompson and tailback Kenny Miles. Shaw might be able to return for the bowl game, but in Spurrier's system, the passing game is mostly there to give the running backs a slight break. That puts a lot of pressure on Miles, who only had two rushing touchdowns this season while trying to fill Lattimore's spot.
Thompson or Shaw will have one advantage when they do throw the ball the bowl-game suspension of Michigan's top cornerback, J.T. Floyd. With Floyd (and starting punter Will Hagerup) benched for breaking team rules, the Wolverines are shorthanded at cornerback. They've even moved freshman running back Dennis Norfleet to the secondary to try to get enough bodies for the bowl game.
South Carolina is going to struggle to score against the Wolverines' defense, especially without Lattimore. Michigan is going to have trouble stopping Clowney, but Robinson's speed on screens or draw plays will keep South Carolina's pass rush from being able to go full throttle after Gardner. If Michigan uses Gardner and Robinson together, and if Robinson can present any passing threat at all, they will be able to keep South Carolina off balance.
In a game with two very good defenses, that should be the difference. Michigan wins 20-14.