2018 Outback Bowl Preview
This year’s 2018 Outback Bowl is a rematch of the 2013 game, featuring the University of Michigan Wolverines against the Gamecocks of the University of South Carolina. For Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines, the trip to Tampa comes as a disappointment after starting the season with playoff aspirations. However, for Will Muschamp and the Gamecocks, the Outback Bowl is fantastic reward for a team that many doubted its ability to qualify for a bowl this year. Regardless, the Wolverines hope to avoid a repeat of the 2013 Outback Bowl which saw Michigan fall to the Gamecocks 28-33 (It also saw Gamecock defensive end Jadeveon Clowney produce perhaps the greatest hit in Outback Bowl history).
What: Outback Bowl
Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida
When: 12:00 pm EST, Monday, January 1st
A Much Needed Rest
The five weeks between Michigan’s last regular season game is a much needed rest for the Wolverines. All three of the Wolverines’ leading rushers, Karan Higdon, Ty Isaacs, and Chris Evans, dealt with injuries at different times throughout the season. Having all three healthy at the same time will be vital for the Michigan offense that so heavily relies on the ground game.
The break also brought clarity to the quarterback position. Former starter Wilton Speight, who injured his spine in September and never returned, announced his intention to transfer from Michigan earlier this month. The rules governing his transfer did not allow him to play in the bowl despite being medically cleared. This clears the way for Brandon Peters to start. Peters, who got the start after senior John O’Korn struggled in relief of Speight, did not play in the regular season finally because of a concussion sustained against Wisconsin.
The Defense Leads the Way
By far, the best unit that will take the field in this year’s Outback Bowl is Michigan’s defense. It comes in allowing only 268 yards per game, third in the FBS, and a mere 18 points per game. Michigan’s stifling defense will be a key part of any Michigan victory.
The Wolverines’ defensive prowess is, in large part, due to their defensive line. Consensus All-American tackle Maurice Hurst Jr. leads the squad that also features two other linemen, Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich, who took home All-Big Ten honors. Not only are they averaging over three sacks per game, they also allow a mere 125 yards on the ground. They should be able to control the line of scrimmage against a South Carolina offensive line that gave up 26 sacks and 68 tackles for a loss.
This imbalance will likely force the Gamecocks into third down passing situations. Fortunately for the Wolverines, this is where they thrive. They allow conversions on third down only a quarter of the time, which ranks third in the nation, and have the nation’s best pass defense. In three of South Carolina’s four losses, quarterback Jake Bentley threw multiple interceptions. If Michigan’s vaunted defense can repeat this trend, the flight back to Ann Arbor should be a raucous one.
Weakness Against Weakness?
Michigan’s Achilles’ Heel on defense all year has been explosive running backs. In all of their losses, the Wolverines defense lapsed at times. These lapses led to huge gains on key plays. Penn State’s Saquon Barkley gained 69 of his 108 yards on one play. Similarly, Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor rushed for 52 yards on a single play. These types of explosive rushes set up scoring plays that Michigan’s offense cannot match. Luckily for the Wolverines, the Gamecocks do not possess an explosive running back. Giving up these plays to a Gamecocks offense that isn’t know for its explosiveness will likely spell defeat for the Wolverines.
What Michigan Offense Shows Up?
Assessing Michigan’s offense heading into the Outback Bowl is difficult. Statistically, the match-up favors the Gamecocks. The Wolverines come in ranked 101st in the nation in yards per game with 354. They are also 104th in third down conversion attempts and 44th in red zone offense. Nothing that excites even the most ardent Wolverines fan.
However, these stats include both Speight’s and O’Korn’s production. The offense is undeniably better with Peters under center. He is not a lights-out player. However, unlike his predecessors, he has yet to throw an interception. This makes things much easier for the Wolverines and takes pressure off the defense.
The Run Game
The bright spot of Michigan’s offense is the run game. With a fully healthy backfield expect Harbaugh to favor the run and take pressure of Peters. With a running back by committee approach, the Wolverines always have fresh legs to call upon. A key theme to Michigan’s victories was big single-play runs by multiple running backs that set up scoring situations. Look for the Wolverines to attempt to continue this trend.
A key scenario that will determine the outcome of this game is when Michigan’s offense is in the red zone. Michigan made it to the red zone only 34 times this season. Once there, they were not very productive. For the Wolverines to take the day, they will need better production inside the Carolina 20-yard line.
Both teams come into this game hungry for a win. Michigan desires redemption. South Carolina looks to prove the haters wrong. Michigan’s stifling defense and at times sputtering offense suggests a low-scoring game. Expect Wolverines’ fully healthy offense to edge out the Gamecocks thanks to an aggressive ground attack and smart decision making by at quarterback.