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The Outback Bowl: Michigan vs. South Carolina Preview

Isaiah Hole/247Sports

Michigan (8-4, 5-4 Big Ten) takes on South Carolina (8-4, 5-3 SEC) in the Outback Bowl, mate. (If you refuse to use the corporate sponsor name, and good for you, this is the old Hall of Fame Bowl played at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ stadium that usually has third pick of Big Ten and SEC teams.)

Kickoff’s at noon on Monday, January 1 (don’t mention this to Spartans)–here’s the breakdown.

Michigan vs. South Carolina: The narrative

Harbaugh needs this one, folks. A four-loss season is barely acceptable to most of the fan base. A five-loss season wouldn’t cause anyone to wish for Brady Hoke back, but it would cause some to wonder if the program is headed in the right direction. The griping is already pretty loud, and the reactionaries among us might start putting together lists of available coaches (shudder) in case of meltdown.

But what stands in Michigan’s way? An overrated Gamecock squad that is nowhere near the Vincent-Smith-murdering outfit the Wolverines last saw in the 2013 Outback Bowl.

Speaking of that game and outfits, I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder and different strokes for different folks and whatnot, but I think we can all take comfort that Michigan won’t be playing the Outback Bowl in this grossness:

Ew

It wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t conjure memories of a loss.

South Carolina is in year two under former Florida coach Will Muschamp. They went 6-7 last year, so they’ve shown improvement, but Gamecock fans were spoiled by three-straight 11-2 seasons under another former Florida coach, Steve Spurrier, from 2011-’13, but that’s probably the ceiling for a second-tier SEC team.

South Carolina is playing with house money compared to Michigan. You want to trust Harbaugh with time to prepare against an SEC team (see: Gators, Florida), but the Wolverines had a bye week to prepare for Michigan State (sorry for bringing thiat up) and laid a stinker.

This game sets the tone for the offseason. Win, and the team recovered after the Wisconsin and Ohio State losses and oh my god the whole defense returns. Lose, and Harbaugh has vastly under-performed and oh my god look at next year’s schedule (don’t look at next year’s schedule).

South Carolina last played on November 25, a 34-10 loss at home to Clemson. They also lost to Georgia, Kentucky (7-5) and Texas A&M (7-5). Their best wins came against NC State (8-4) and Missouri (7-5).

Let’s get to it:

Michigan’s offense vs. South Carolina’s defense

The Wolverine rushing game is ranked 9th by S&P+, heavily buoyed by huge performances against Rutgers and Minnesota. Karan Higdon is your offensive MVP and breakout star at running back, averaging 6.3 yards per carry, and as bad as the offensive line is at pass blocking it’s good at run blocking. It ranks 9th in S&P+’s Power Success Rate. When Michigan needs a few yards, it gets them.

South Carolina’s rush D is ranked 24th to S&P+, its strength. Senior end Dante Sawyer and linebacker Skai Moore (both second-team SEC) are quality players, but the Wolverines have seen much better rushing defenses this year. For comparison, Florida has the 22nd-ranked rush D to S&P+, and Michigan was able to get 4.4 yards per carry and 215 yards against the Gators on the ground. The Gamecocks only allowed two teams to rush for more than 200 yards this season, but the Wolverine rush game is good enough be the third.

Redshirt freshman Brandon Peters finished the regular season with good numbers: a 57.8 completion percentage, 7.6 yards per attempt and no interceptions. One would think he would play well against S&P+’s 57th-ranked pass D that’s small and plays a bend but don’t break scheme.

Here’s the problem with that: The last time we saw Peters on the field he was unconscious for “30, 40 seconds.” No telling how a young QB is going to bounce back from that. Plus, talented freshman wide receiver Tarik Black is still out with a broken foot and Michigan’s pass blocking is horrendous: 118th in adjusted sack rate, 121st in standard downs sack rate and 110th in passing downs sack rate.

If Peters finishes the game consider it a victory.

I’m not kidding.

Advantage: South Carolina

Michigan’s defense vs. South Carolina’s offense

You made it to the good part! South Carolina is bad at running the ball, ranked 67th by S&P+. A.J. Turner averages 5.6 yards per carry, but he’s banged up. He’s playing but not at 100%. The offensive line is full of upperclassmen and left guard Donnell Stanley is decent, but they rank 76th in stuff rate and they’re about to get acquainted with Maurice Hurst who’s going to eat. He always does.

You’re going to see some nice stats for sophomore QB Jake Bentley: 62.4 completion percentage, 7.1 yards per attempt and 16 touchdowns. He beat up on bad teams, though. His yards per attempt against Georgia and Clemson? 5.5. And he’s only 61st nationally to Pro Football Focus.

The Gamecocks throw and throw deep a lot. Bentley had the most drop-backs of any SEC QB. This is a great strategy that will put up big numbers against a bad pass D, but it also leads to things like four interceptions on deep balls this season (second-most in the SEC) and 13 turnover-worthy passes (third-most in the SEC).

Michigan’s pass D? Even better than its run D. Corners Lavert Hill and David Long are stellar, and you know Chase Winovich & Co. can get to the quarterback against the 94th-ranked passing down sack rate offensive line that gives up 2.17 sacks per game.

Oh yeah, South Carolina OC/QB coach and playcaller Kurt Roper got fired on Dec. 6. They haven’t replaced him permanently, and the WR coach is nominally in charge now and will call plays.

He’s never called plays before.

If there’s a glimmer of hope for the Gamecocks on offense it’s All SEC First-Teamer tight end Hayden Hurst. He’s getting first round buzz after declaring for the draft with 41 catches for 518 yards this season. Hurst getting matched up against a Wolverine safety is something Michigan’s D needs to worry about.

Wide receiver Bryan Edwards has also had a nice season: 59 catches for 705 yards. He showed up against good teams, too, reeling in seven catches against Georgia and six against Clemson.

You’re going to see Bentley drop back and chuck it deep a lot. As long as Hurst or Edwards aren’t running free on the other end of those passes, it’s going to be hard to score against the Wolverines. Against Georgia, South Carolina scored 10 points. Against Clemson, South Carolina scored 10 points. Expect the same against Michigan.

Advantage: Michigan

Special Teams and Intangibles

South Carolina punt returner Chris Lammons has about the same average as DPJ without the touchdown.

Redshirt freshman Parker White took over the placekicking duties for the Gamecocks in Week 3. He’s made 12-of-22 with a 47-yard long. He’s 9/10 39 yards or shorter and 3/12 from 40+. He’s made his last seven of nine. Quinn Nordin finished the regular season at 75% with those two 50+ yarders against Florida. The Wolverines have an advantage here.

South Carolina punter Joseph Charlton was sixth-best in the SEC with a 44.3-yard average and a 77-yard long. Michigan’s punters averaged about 40 yards per boot. The Gamecocks have a slight advantage here.

Neutral field, certainly closer to South Carolina than Michigan, but Wolverine fans travel well, and Michigan has a lot more to play for.

Advantage: Michigan

Final Score: Michigan 17, South Carolina 10

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