A New Year's Day tradition continues at Raymond James Stadium on Tuesday afternoon when the South Carolina Gamecocks face off against the Michigan Wolverines in the Outback Bowl.
The Gamecocks' outstanding season only had two blemishes on it, with back-to- back losses in mid-October at LSU (23-21) and at Florida (44-11). Other than that, South Carolina proved to be one of the strongest teams in the nation, earning signature wins over nationally-ranked foes Georgia (35-7) and Clemson (27-17), finishing the year with a 10-2 record, just one win off its school record.
"We are fired up and elated to be going to the Outback Bowl," said head coach Steve Spurrier, who has led the Gamecocks to six bowl games in his eight season. "We stunk it up and didn't play well (in the 2009 Outback Bowl). I feel we're a completely different team than we were four years ago. We're looking forward to going down there and competing a very high level. It's a big opportunity for our university and our football program."
Michigan came into the 2012 campaign with a No. 8 national ranking and as one of the most hyped teams in the nation, but it proved itself not quite ready for national championship consideration on opening week when it fell on a neutral field to Alabama, 41-14. Although they went on to lose three more games to very good teams in Nebraska (23-9), Ohio State (26-21), and Notre Dame (13-6), the Wolverines still finished with twice as many wins as losses to earn their 42nd trip to a bowl game.
"This is an exciting place to be," head coach Brady Hoke said. "It is going to be at a good bowl game, and to play a great opponent is even more challenging."
The teams met up two times before in the 1980s, with the road team claiming each matchup.
South Carolina had very little problem generating offense in the rough SEC, amassing 372.4 ypg for more than 31 points per contest, but it has had to adjust to life without what many consider to be the nation's most talented running back.
Marcus Lattimore was in the midst of a fantastic season, racking up 662 yards and 11 touchdowns before suffering a season-ending knee injury for the second straight year in the Oct. 27 bout with Tennessee. In Lattimore's absence, Kenny Miles (358 yards, two TDs) and Mike Davis (275 yards, two TDs) have split time in the backfield with marginal returns.
Picking up the slack without his star running back has been signal-caller Connor Shaw, who on top of throwing for 1,732 yards and 15 touchdowns, has rushed for 339 yards and three scores. Shaw is completing a lofty 67.3 percent of his passes and has thrown just seven interceptions.
While the Gamecocks don't possess an elite go-to option at the receiver position, both Bruce Ellington (564 yards, six TDs) and Ace Sanders (439 yards, seven TDs) have had their moments this season helping out Shaw in the passing game.
While the offense has done more than its fair share, the biggest reason for South Carolina's success this year has been the outstanding play of its defense, which allows just 312.2 ypg and 17.4 ppg.
Anchoring the unit is First Team All-American defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who recorded 13 sacks, two forced fumbles, and 21.5 tackles for loss. DaVonte Holloman (three INTS) is one of five players with multiple interceptions, while D.J. Swearinger (70 tackles) has two picks, two fumble recoveries, and a forced fumble.
Michigan also possess a high-powered offense (30.0 ppg, 385.4 ypg) thanks in large part to its record-setting quarterback.
Denard Robinson took a small step backwards with his passing numbers this season (.536 completion percentage, 1,319 yards, nine TD, nine INTs), but he leads the team in rushing with 1,116 yards and seven touchdowns. The dual- threat has had an illustrious career in Ann Arbor, as he's just the eighth player in NCAA history to record 40 rushing and 40 passing touchdowns in a career, and his 10,669 total yards of offense is tops in Michigan history.
Robinson will most likely need to utilize his talents at another position in the NFL, and Hoke may give him an opportunity to showcase his versatile skill set in the bowl game.
"I would think he would play quarterback, maybe wideout, maybe running back," Hoke said. When asked about giving him an opportunity to return a kick, Hoke answered, "might do that."
Stepping into a bigger role under center this season has been Devin Gardner, who has spelled Robinson on occasion and has actually been a more effective passer, completing 63.3 percent of his attempts for 1,005 yards, eight touchdowns, and four interceptions.
Fitzgerald Toussaint (514 yards, five TDs) is the Wolverines' most effective running back, but he missed the regular-season finale with an ankle injury. If he's unable to go, expect Thomas Rawls (242 yards, four TDs) to see extended action.
Jeremy Gallon (40 receptions, 684 yards, two TDs) has been the most utilized weapon in the receiving game, while Roy Roundtree has made the most of his 28 receptions, piling up 553 yards and scoring three touchdowns.
Michigan's defensive unit isn't quite as dominant as South Carolina's, but in allowing just 18.8 ppg on less than 312 ypg, it has played very well in its own right.
Jake Ryan paces the squad with 84 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, and four forced fumbles, while Thomas Gordon (75 tackles) and Raymon Taylor (42 tackles) each have a pair of interceptions. The Wolverines haven't done a great job getting after the quarterback, totaling just 19 sacks in 12 games.