South Carolina will be spending its New Year’s Day in a familiar place. For the fifth time in the last 18 years, the Gamecocks will play in the Outback Bowl. They are 3-1 in the previous four trips to Tampa, including a thrilling win over this year’s opponent, the Michigan Wolverines, the last time they made this trip. The 8-4 Gamecocks will be searching for just the seventh 9-win season in school history.
South Carolina Returns to the Outback Bowl
Michigan comes into the Outback Bowl after what some feel was a disappointing regular season. They were looked at in the preseason as a team that could contend for the Big Ten title, but that never materialized. Michigan finished at 8-4 on the year, but only have one win over a bowl team. They again struggled in losses to rivals Michigan State and Ohio State.
The Wolverines are led by a stout physical defense. They only allow 18.3 points and 268 yards per game. They rank third nationally in total defense and 12th nationally in scoring defense. Ohio State was the only team to score more than 30 points on them in 2017. Senior defensive lineman Chase Winovich helped lead the defense with 18 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. Sophomore linebacker Devin Bush led the team in tackles with 89, and added 5.5 sacks as well. Senior defensive tackles Maurice Hurst Jr. is a consensus All-American. Michigan will look to contain a struggling Gamecock offense, in a game that shouldn’t feature many points.
The Wolverine offense had major issues in 2017. They averaged 25 points per game, but only scored more than 20 points once against a team with a winning record. Quarterbacks John O’Korn and Wilton Speight combined for only five passing touchdowns against eight interceptions. Michigan will rely on its power running game, as they have three players with more than 550 yards on the ground this year. Karan Higdon leads the team with 929 yards and 11 scores. Michigan has yet to show they can move the ball on a good defense, and they struggle to score touchdowns in the red zone. Turnovers could also be a problem, as the Gamecocks are in the top 20 teams in the nation in turnover margin.
New Year, New Offense
The Gamecocks may have a bit of a new look on offense in this game. After the unit struggled to show any consistency all year, they parted ways with coordinator Kurt Roper before the bowl game. South Carolina has a lot of young talent on that side, but injuries and inconsistency hampered them all season. It will be interesting to see what effect the coaching change has in this game. Expectations may be tempered because of the stout defense on the Wolverines sideline.
Quarterback Jake Bentley has struggled early in games all season. His throws have been erratic and he has missed some big play opportunities. Against a stingy defense like Michigan’s, Bentley will need to be at his best and not miss chances to make big plays. Getting Hayden Hurst and Bryan Edwards involved early would be a big boost. The Gamecocks will also need to establish the run, and stick to it throughout the ball game. It could be tough to get the ground game going, so patience and persistence will be key from new play caller Bryon McClendon.
As mentioned, the South Carolina defense has been stout in the red zone and in the turnover category this season. Their numbers from a yardage standpoint are not great, but they only allow 21 points per game. The youth of Will Muschamp’s team has been well documented, but not enough has been made of the senior leadership. This is especially true on defense. There are six senior starters on the defense. The Gamecocks will need to get after the Michigan offense early and take away any chances for them to build momentum.
Forcing a few turnovers could be a big factor. The Wolverines are prone to giving the ball away, and against their stout defense, the Gamecocks offense could benefit from a few short fields. Senior linebacker Skai Moore is closing in on multiple school records. He needs one interception to break the career mark at South Carolina, and should also end up as the only player to lead the team in tackles in all four seasons.
Outback Bowl Overview
The last time these two teams met in the Outback Bowl, both offenses put up big numbers in an exciting back and forth contest. Everyone remembers “The Hit” by Jadeveon Clowney, but there were multiple big plays by both teams that day.
This match-up doesn’t appear to be as exciting. Both of these offenses have had their issues scoring, while both defenses have been solid all season. Look for a low scoring affair. Red zone efficiency and turnovers will be key as to who can come out on top.