COLUMBIA — Last season, South Carolina finished with its best record ever, 11-2, by beating one of college football’s most storied teams, Nebraska, in the Capital One Bowl. This season, the winningest program in the sport’s history stands in the way of USC again going 11-2.
It was revealed Sunday that USC will play Michigan in the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl at 1 p.m.
No. 19 Michigan (8-4, 6-2 Big Ten) doesn’t have a bad loss. The Wolverines have fallen to No. 1 Notre Dame (12-0), No. 2 Alabama (12-1), No. 3 Ohio State (12-0) and No. 23 Nebraska (10-3).
The Wolverines lost by seven points to Notre Dame and by five to Ohio State.
This bowl matchup is all the more intriguing when you consider No. 11 USC’s losses are to No. 4 Florida (11-1) and No. 9 LSU (10-2).
USC is 1-1 all-time against Michigan, with both meetings coming in the regular season. In 1980, USC won 17-14 at Michigan. In 1985, the Wolverines won 34-3 in Columbia.
The 1980 game turned out to be one of USC’s most significant wins ever. It was USC’s fourth game that season. Michigan was ranked No. 17. The Wolverines finished 10-2 and ranked No. 4. That remains one of USC’s three wins ever in 50 games against teams that finished in the top 5.
USC coach Steve Spurrier knows a matchup with Michigan carries more weight than a date with Northwestern in the Gator Bowl. That was the Gamecocks’ other postseason option. But Northwestern will play Mississippi State in that game.
“Northwestern is a heck of a team,” Spurrier said. “They easily could have been going to the Rose Bowl. But if you beat Northwestern or you get beat by Northwestern, you don’t achieve quite as much (as you do) by playing Michigan. When you play a team with the stature, the tradition and the reputation of the University of Michigan, it’s something special.”
This is USC’s fourth trip to the Outback Bowl. The Gamecocks went after the 2000 and 2001 seasons and beat Ohio State both times. They returned after the 2008 season and 31-10 lost to Iowa to finish 7-6. (The Outback Bowl was previously known as the Hall of Fame Bowl and was held in Birmingham, Ala. USC appeared in that game once, losing to Missouri in 1979.)
Since the 2008 Outback Bowl, USC is 30-9.
“I really believe we are a completely different team than we were four years ago,” Spurrier said. “I think our team is a more mature team.”
Michigan is in its second year under coach Brady Hoke, who has a defensive background and was previously was the head coach at Ball State and San Diego State. The Wolverines went 11-2 and 6-2 last season, and beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl. Hoke’s older brother, Jon, was Spurrier’s defensive coordinator in his final three years at Florida (1999-2001).
The Wolverines are known for their defense and athletic senior quarterback Denard Robinson. They rank No. 11 nationally in total defense, No. 2 against the pass and No. 58 against the run. Robinson has run for 1,166 yards and seven touchdowns this season and thrown for 1,319 yards, nine touchdowns and nine interceptions, while completing 53.6 percent of his passes.
“I don’t know if we’ve faced a guy quite like him that can throw and run and do what he does,” Spurrier said.
While Spurrier is impressed by Robinson’s skills, he spoke in reverential terms about former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler, one of college football’s legends. Spurrier’s favorite line from Schembechler is one he read in Schembechler’s book in 1991, Spurrier’s second season at Florida, when he was trying to finesse his way through games.
“Running teams are tougher teams,” the line read.
“I haven’t always lived by it,” Spurrier said. “Probably should have. I’ve reverted back to it recently here at South Carolina.”
Spurrier said USC won’t start pre-bowl practices for “another two weeks, probably.” He said Connor Shaw will enter the practices as the No. 1 quarterback despite missing the regular season finale at Clemson with a sprained left foot. Trainers are “treating him very gingerly right now,” Spurrier said, adding that he expects both Shaw and Dylan Thompson to play in the bowl.