The Michigan Wolverines (8-4) have endured what many would call a dissatisfying season. Even though the defense hasn’t missed a beat despite all but one of its starters from a year ago, the offense has struggled mightily.
The passing game has been especially iffy for the Wolverines and there are plenty of stats to prove it. As a team Michigan has just 2023 passing yards and nine touchdowns which rank 111th and 119th in the country, respectively.
While its certainly too late for the Wolverines to fix their woes in time to compete for a title, they ‘ll get an opportunity to see where they are heading into next season on New Year’s Day when they travel to Tampa, FL to face the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Outback Bowl.
The two teams last met in the Outback Bowl in 2013, when the Gamecocks scored a touchdown with 11 seconds left to upend the Wolverines. However, the game was known more for “The Hit” when then-South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney tackled then-Michigan running back Vincent Smith so hard his helmet came lose and he fumbled the ball to the Gamecocks.
Five years, later, USC (8-4) isn’t quite as dominant, with all of those players having left and even head coach Steve Spurrier retiring, but the team is still very much formidable, as they finished second in the SEC East right behind SEC champion Georgia.
The team’s offense is led by quarterback Jake Bentley. The sophomore has thrown for 2555 yards and 16 touchdowns and has played every minute of every game this year. He also leads the team with six rushing touchdowns.
South Carolina features a committee running game, with several different players getting lots of reps. A.J. Turner and Ty’Son Williams lead the team with 92 carries and have 517 and 460 yards on the season, respectively. expect Rico Dowdle and and Mon Denson to see some time as well.
The receiving core is led by Bryan Edwards whose 59 receptions, 705 yards and four touchdowns are all best on the team. Trailing him are receivers Hayden Hurst, Shi Smith, OrTre Smith and Deebo Samuel.
Players to Watch
There is no other Wolverine with more to prove in this game than Brandon Peters. The redshirt sophomore is one of three quarterbacks to start for the team this season.
Peters replaced fifth-year senior John O’Korn in the second quarter of Michigan’s game against Rutgers and held on to the starting job until suffering a concussion three weeks later in a game against Wisconsin. In that span he threw for 486 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions.
O’Korn, along with Wilton Speight and Alex Malzone, will be leaving once the season is over. However, Peters will still have a difficult competition ahead and not just against current players and incoming freshmen.
Just a few weeks ago, Shea Patterson, a former five-star quarterback recruit tabbed as the best player at his position, announced he would be transferring from Ole Miss to Michigan and could be eligible to play next year if his waiver is approved by the NCAA.
Patterson has played ten games over the past two years. He played the final four games of last season after Chad Kelly, then the Ole Miss quarterback, was injured. This year he played the first six games of the season before suffering a PCL tear that would end his season. At the time of the injury, Patterson was third in the FBS in passing yards.
Peters will need to prove that he can work with this offense better than anyone else in the system. That means making smart plays and avoiding turnovers, which have haunted the team this year.
The defensive end has played a huge role in the success of the Wolverines’ defense this season. Winovich currently leads the team in tackles for loss (18) and sacks (8.5) as well as second in total tackles (70) and assisted tackles (35).
However, the Outback Bowl could be his last with the maize and blue as Winovich has contemplated declaring for the NFL Draft. Even with Michigan’s defense featuring so many talented players, Winovich leaving would be a huge blow for a team looking to compete next year.
The junior running back has been the brightest spot on an otherwise below-average offense this year. Higdon not only leads the team in rushing yards, but he has accounted for more touchdowns (11) and the most yards from scrimmage (1049) of any other of his teammates this season.
Given those stats, it’s safe to assume he’ll have a big role in the offense in the Outback Bowl and in 2018. Even if Brandon Peters excels, Higdon will need to be the fallback he has been all year.
The game can be seen on Monday, Jan. 1 at 12 p.m. EST on ESPN2 and on the WatchESPN app.