It’s a word that’s synonymous with Michigan. The Big House, ‘Hail to the Victors,’ maize and blue, the winged helmets; all of these things are ingrained in the fabric of college football.
It’s also one that South Carolina’s trying to establish. For years, USC was known as the school with the ‘Chicken Curse,’ the one that had to endure the annual ‘Orange Crush’ and its football team was more likely to finish in the lower half rather than the upper half of the standings.
But both teams enter today’s Outback Bowl in similar positions.
The 10th-ranked Gamecocks (10-2) are in the midst of the greatest run in school history. This is the second consecutive year the Gamecocks have finished with double-digit wins, something it did just once in 119 years. A win today against the No. 18 Wolverines (8-4) would also tie the school record for wins in a season, which was set last year.
A victory would also mean that the Gamecocks would finish in the top-10 of the final polls, something that only last year’s team has ever done.
Across the field, Michigan has seen a similar resurgence in the past two years. In his first year at the helm, head coach Brady Hoke guided the Wolverines to a BCS Bowl – last year’s 23-20 overtime win over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl – and to double-digit wins for the first time since 2006. The program fell on hard times under the then-embattled Rich Rodriguez, who only won 15 games in three seasons.
Across the board, these two teams match up well. The Gamecocks average 31.4 points per game, while the Wolverines are right behind them with 30 a game. South Carolina’s stingy defense gives up just 17.4 PPG, while Michigan only gives up 18.8. The teams are neck-and-neck in defensive total yardage as Michigan is 11th (311.2 ypg) and USC is 12th (312.6).
Both defenses will have their hands full, as both USC and Michigan have a set of quarterbacks. Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson are both expected to see time, with Shaw starting the game. Thompson was superb in USC’s regular season finale against Clemson, throwing for 310 yards and three touchdowns. On the flip side, Michigan will start former reserve Devin Gardner ahead of Denard Robinson. Robinson suffered an elbow injury in October and has been used as a running back behind Gardner.
Robinson leads the Wolverines in rushing with 1,166 yards and seven touchdowns. Shaw was third in rushing for the Gamecocks with 339 yards. Both teams’ top running backs – Marcus Lattimore and Fitzgerald Toussaint – suffered season ending leg injuries earlier in the year.
The strength of the teams’ defenses is where they differ.
USC’s defensive line is among the best in the country, and an argument could be made that it’s the top unit in all of college football. Jadeveon Clowney will likely be 2014’s No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft, and he has 13 sacks to go with a whopping 21½ tackles for a loss. He will have a matchup of emphasis against Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan, who is likely a first-round draft pick in this year’s draft. The Gamecocks are fifth in the country in sacks and 15th in rushing defense as a team.
Michigan has the No. 2 pass defense in the country, only trailing Nebraska. The suspension of starting cornerback J.T. Floyd will hurt the unit, but Courtney Avery will likely step in and pair up with first-year starter Raymon Taylor to defend Bruce Ellington and Ace Sanders.
Both teams will be looking for a capstone to their seasons, but one thing is for certain: whoever wins will be able to add a significant feather to their historical cap.
Scott Rodgers is a graduate of Alvernia University and a staff writer at the Aiken Standard.
No. 10 South Carolina (10-2) vs. No. 18 Michigan (8-4)
Today, 1 p.m. (ESPN)
MCT Photo/Gerry Melendez/The State South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (7) walks by Alabama-Birmingham quarterback Jonathan Perry (14) after a big hit. Clowney’s matchup against Michigan’s Taylor Lewan will be a key to the Outback Bowl.×