South Carolina vs. Michigan, 2013 Outback Bowl preview: Star power and disaster

Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

It's Denard Robinson's final game as a Michigan Wolverine. Can his defense avoid letting South Carolina off the hook on passing downs? 1 p.m. ET, ESPN.

5 Players To Watch

Jadeveon Clowney (DE, South Carolina, So.). It seems too obvious, but of course you're going to need to watch Jadeveon Clowney. The sophomore has lived up to virtually every pixel of five-star hype thus far; in 2012, he recorded 21.5 tackles for loss (most in the country for a defensive end, and in only 11 games) and 13 sacks (again, most in the country). You think you're doing a pretty good job of containing him, and then he suddenly explodes. Clowney was hampered by injury at times in 2012, but he returned to destroy Clemson on November 24 (6.5 tackles, 4.5 sacks), and he is a one-man passing downs stopper.

Without Clowney at full-strength, South Carolina has a big, strong, active defense. A line with only players like tackle Kelcy Quarles and ends Devin Taylor, Aldrick Fordham and Chaz Sutton would still be one of the better in the country, and the up-the-middle portion of the defense (Quarles, middle linebacker Reginald Bowers, free safety D.J. Swearinger) is outstanding. With Clowney, the Gamecocks are nearly impenetrable.

Jake Ryan (SLB, Michigan, So.). Michigan's defense might be the second-best in this game, but it is still strong, especially against the run. A big line occupies blockers for the linebackers, and Ryan takes full advantage. For the season, Ryan led the Wolverines in tackles (68.5), tackles for loss (14.5), sacks (4.0) and forced fumbles (four) and was second in passes broken up (three).

Michigan's pass defense is disturbingly passive (the Wolverines have only 19 sacks and 28 passes defensed in 2012), but depending on who South Carolina's quarterback is -- the run-friendly (and frequently banged-up) Connor Shaw or the more vertical-passing Dylan Thompson -- that might or might not be of primary concern. Shaw is an excellent runner and probably the better overall quarterback, but his presence in the starting lineup would play to Michigan's strengths. Shaw is tremendously efficient in both the zone read game (4.9 yards per carry) and the short passing (67 percent completion rate), but the Wolverines are strong near the line of scrimmage. It will be interesting to see how South Carolina chooses to attack the Michigan defense, as we are looking at a bit of a strength-vs-strength, weakness-vs-weakness battle here.

Denard Robinson (QB/RB/Whatever, Michigan, Sr.). On the second carry of his career, Denard Robinson, untied shoelaces and all, ripped off a 43-yard touchdown keeper.

Three years and four months later, the senior from Deerfield Beach, Florida, will be finishing his career about four hours northwest of his hometown. We don't yet know how much the quarterback will actually play quarterback -- Robinson suffered nerve damage in his throwing arm on October 27 and, upon his return, served as a running back against Iowa and Ohio State -- but regardless, his career has been a beautiful statistical oddity. Robinson has thrown for 6,250 yards and 49 touchdowns and rushed for 4,395 yards and 42 touchdowns, and while it would be nice to get him a 50th passing touchdown, is legacy is set no matter what he does (or from what position he does it) in Tampa versus the Gamecocks. Soak in your final glimpses of him in the maize and blue.

Ace Sanders (WR, South Carolina, Jr.) and Bruce Ellington (WR, South Carolina, So.). South Carolina's receiving corps is one of the most unique in the country, and it has bailed the Gamecocks out of quite a few jams this season. South Carolina is a run-heavy team that can't actually run the ball very well; the Gamecocks were bruising and semi-efficient before Marcus Lattimore's second season-ending injury in two years, but without him they have fallen to 72nd in Rushing S&P+. Senior Kenny Miles and freshman Mike Davis have combined to average 4.2 yards per carry for the season, and in their last four games versus FBS defenses (Florida, Tennessee, Arkansas, Clemson), they averaged just 3.3.

Michigan's run defense is stout, so the Gamecocks will probably have to take to the air (often on passing downs) to move the ball. That means a lot of targets for the quick-as-hell Ace Sanders (5'8, 175; 439 yards, 6.9 per target, 56 percent catch rate), and Bruce Sanders (5'9, 197; 564 yards, 10.3 per target, 69 percent catch rate), one of the fastest bowling balls in the country. Carolina's passing game basically consists of dumping to a huge tight end (Justice Cunningham) and two short receivers, but it has bailed the Gamecocks out of quite a few jams this season, and against a passive Michigan pass defense, it could again.

4 Reasons To Watch

1. This may be the most telling SEC-Big Ten battle of the day. As we have previously discussed, the Big Ten has by far the best, and worst, bowl ties in the country. The conference basically owns New Year's Day and gets all the exposure it could possibly want in the postseason ... but it also has to take on a really, really difficult slate of opponents from other conferences. The conference is usually projected to do pretty poorly in bowl play, and in a year where two of its best teams (Ohio State and Penn State) are ineligible fror the postseason, it is expected to be even worse. Five Big Ten teams take the field on January 1, and they are all five underdogs by an average of 8.1 points.

Thus far in bowl play, however, 13-point underdog Minnesota almost beat Texas Tech, and 2.5-point underdog Michigan State did beat TCU. The Big Ten grades out relatively well in the F/+ rankings (or, at least, better than the conference's public perception) and could acquit itself reasonably successfully on Tuesday. But the most telling and interesting of the conference's five games is this one, which pits a semi-elite Big Ten offense (Michigan is No. 18 in Off. F/+, third-best in the conference) with the prototypical big, fast, effective SEC defense (South Carolina is No. 6 in Def. F/+, third-best in the conference). Can Michigan figure out a way to move the ball at a rate high enough to win this game? Have the F/+ ratings given the conference a bit too much credit overall?

2. Denard. His unique skill set is high on the, "This is why college football is so great," list, and he is playing in his final college game.

3. Jadeveon. He is going to be getting quite a bit of, "Can we finally vote a defensive player for Heisman?" hype next fall, and no matter who is playing quarterback (Robinson or Devin Gardner, a much more effective passer), you are going to edge forward on your seat every time Michigan faces a passing down because you know Jadeveon Clowney could erupt on the backfield at any second.

4. Bonus football. Bonus football!

3 Key Factors

1. Can South Carolina run the ball? We spend so much time thinking about Clowney chasing Robinson in the open field that we ignore the fact that perhaps the biggest mismatch in the game takes place when both of those players are on the sideline. South Carolina's offense ranks 72nd in Rushing S&P+, and Michigan's defense ranks 15th. The Gamecocks are Top 40 when it comes to run percentages -- they want to run the ball as much as possible, especially if Shaw is at quarterback -- but will they get away with it?

2. Can Michigan close drives? Okay, so Michigan can probably expect to force a lot of second-and-10's and third-and-8's. Is that enough to get the ball back to the offense? Michigan ranks just 42nd in Passing S&P+ and 31st on passing downs. The Wolverines have just six more sacks as a team than Clowney, and they take a bend-don't-break mantra a little too seriously at times. Ace Sanders and Bruce Ellington can burn you downfield if you let them (despite the poor run game, the Gamecocks rank 11th in the country in passing downs offense), and Michigan has a tendency of sometimes letting you get to the chains when it shouldn't.

3. Michigan vs. Disaster. In Michigan's four losses this season, the Wolverines have committed 16 turnovers worth 78 equivalent points (as defined here). Average turnover points margin in these four games: 11.4 points per game. Average margin of defeat in these four games: 13.3 points per game. Michigan has been its own worst enemy on the offensive side of the ball, and the Wolverines simply cannot afford many mistakes against a South Carolina defense what won't give them a ton of scoring chances.

2 Predictions

F/+ Pick: Michigan by 2.2.
Bill's Pick: South Carolina by 4. These teams each have quite a bit of upside overall, no matter who is at quarterback for which team, but the Gamecocks have a higher floor. I trust them more, so we'll go with them.

1 Shutdown Fullback

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