Monday marks the start of the new year, and the final time we'll see the South Carolina football team for the 2017 season. The Gamecocks take on Michigan for just the fourth time in program history, and most will remember their most recent meeting in the 2013 Outback Bowl: just let the Jadeveon Clowney hit roll through your mind. With the regular season in the books, the Gamecocks are looking to improve their current 8-4 record, while the Wolverines have a lot they want to prove.
The Daily Gamecock sports staff caught up with Michigan Daily sports writer Kevin Santo to preview the matchup.
Q: Michigan is coming off two straight losses to end the season, but the bowl game is a whole new atmosphere. How has the the team tried to refocus from those losses, and what are the main things they needed to improve on from those games?
A: The team’s postseason aspirations were dashed early on when Michigan was blown out in Happy Valley, but wins against Wisconsin or Ohio State would have vindicated the season, at least to some extent. The fact is that most fans — and the team — would probably say that finishing 8-4 was a disappointment this year. Realistically, that regular season mark probably should have been expected...
Either way, the consensus has been that this matchup against South Carolina can serve as a springboard into next year. Mike McCray spoke a lot about how a win (or a loss) in the bowl game can carry over into the offseason. That message has become the focal point of their attempt to refocus. If they’re going to get a win in the Outback Bowl, I think the offensive line will need to show a lot of improvement from those final two games. It’s been an issue all year, but Brandon Peters’ injury against Wisconsin is easy to point to as evidence of the line’s struggles. The quarterback play will need to be better as well, but I think Peters is capable of correcting that issue if he gets some help from his line.
Q: Michigan is a very pro-style offense, something that South Carolina is very familiar facing this season. How can Michigan prepare their offense and not let South Carolina take advantage of knowing what to expect?
A: Jim Harbaugh has shown he is willing to implement some wrinkles to the offense in big games, but I wouldn’t expect Michigan to stray too much from its bread and butter. In this case, that will mean putting the ball in Karan Higdon and Chris Evans’ hands early and often. Higdon had a breakout year and is undoubtedly the starter, but the duo looked dangerous down the stretch sharing carries.
Technically, since Michigan went through three quarterbacks this year, there isn’t a ton of film on Brandon Peters. There’s always the chance that Michigan spent the last month implementing some new sets so Peters can give them some different looks.
Q: Although a starter hasn't officially been named, many believe redshirt freshman Brandon Peters will make his return under center on Monday. This would be his first game back from his injury. If he is the one to play, what should South Carolina expect to see out of him?
A: A lot has been made of Peters’ role in this game, primarily because Michigan just secured Shea Patterson’s transfer from Ole Miss...Peters acknowledged that this game is a huge opportunity to prove himself and enter the offseason with a leg up in the impending quarterback competition. As he put it, he’s not “going to let someone come into my house and take something from me.”
I’d say you can expect him to lean on Sean McKeon and Zach Gentry. In the games that he played, he showed a chemistry with his tight ends. He won’t beat South Carolina with his legs. The last thing that I would say is that Michigan hasn’t been able to throw deep this year. Peters has the arm to throw the deep ball, but even he hasn’t completed passes downfield so far.
Q: Which are the key matchups to this game, and why?
A: Michigan’s offensive line against South Carolina’s defensive line will be something to look for. Mason Cole and Ben Bredeson have done well enough on the left side of the line. The right side, however, has been an issue.... Really, the offensive line will be the biggest question mark entering the offseason. Michigan has a lot of talented guards, but have a bare cupboard at tackle. The matchup against South Carolina will likely be the first step in trying to answer those questions.
I’d also pay attention to how the safeties fare in coverage. Teams have had a lot of success attacking Michigan’s safeties in the slot. Michigan has a dominant pass rush and its corners have been exceptional, but if they can’t correct those issues, this defense is vulnerable.
Q: The last time these two teams met, it was the 2013 Outback Bowl and the Gamecocks walked away with the 33-28 win. What is your prediction (with score) for this year's bowl game, and why?
A: I see Michigan coming away with a 28-10 win. South Carolina has been held under 300 yards four times this year, and the Wolverines’ biggest strength is their defensive unit. Don Brown has had a month to prepare his defense for this matchup, and it’s hard to imagine them failing to live up to their reputation. On the offensive end, I think Higdon and Evans can continue to carry the load. Throw in what’s at stake for Peters, and I think he is poised for a strong performance.