COLUMBIA — After relaxing with their families for Christmas, South Carolina’s players and coaches arrived in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday to begin serious preparations for Tuesday’s Outback Bowl against Michigan, in which the Gamecocks will try to equal last season’s program-best 11-2 record.
The Gamecocks did not practice Wednesday. Their first practice in Tampa will be this morning. Because the bowl falls on a Tuesday, today will be like Monday of a normal game week. Before breaking for Christmas, USC practiced in Columbia from Dec. 15-22, which were its first formal workouts since the regular season finale win at Clemson on Nov. 24.
The initial practices in Columbia focused largely on getting experience for younger players, similar to what USC does in spring practices, said defensive line coach Brad Lawing. The practices in Tampa will focus exclusively on game preparation.
Michigan got to Tampa on Sunday because coach Brady Hoke wanted his players to have extra time to adjust to the warm weather they likely will play in, since the bowl kicks off at 1 p.m.
The Wolverines also last played Nov. 24, which means quarterback Denard Robinson has had plenty of time to rehabilitate his injured throwing elbow. He suffered the injury Oct. 27 and did not play in the next two games. He played in the final two games but did not throw a pass, as the Wolverines stuck with his replacement, Devin Gardner, and Robinson lined up at running back and wide receiver. Their quarterback plan for the bowl game is unclear.
Michigan has won at least 10 games 26 times, including nine seasons with 11-plus wins, most recently last year’s 11-2 record, which culminated with a Sugar Bowl victory. Those achievements should come as no surprise, since Michigan has more wins (903) than any program in college football history, ahead of Texas (866), Notre Dame (865) and Nebraska (856), which USC beat last season in the Capital One Bowl.
So finishing 9-4, in and of itself, wouldn’t be a monumental accomplishment for Michigan, like another 11-2 record would be for USC. Still, the Wolverines are trying to win back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 1997-2000. Between that four-game bowl winning streak and last season’s victory, the Wolverines were 2-6 in bowls and went bowl-less in 2008 and 2009.
“People will remember our last game of the season,” Lawing said. “We built up a lot of goodwill by beating Clemson at the end of the season and having 10 wins. But we all know that if we go out there and don’t play well against Michigan, y’all (reporters) are going to be in here, asking questions: ‘What the heck’s going?’ I know that. That’s the reality of our profession and what we do.”
It didn’t take much film study of Michigan’s defense for USC coach Steve Spurrier to notice one thing in particular.
“Their front guys sort of jump out at you,” he said.
While Michigan ranks No. 16 nationally with 18.8 points allowed per game and No. 10 with 311.2 yards allowed, the Wolverines’ rushing defense and sack totals aren’t that great. Michigan is No. 59 with 156 rushing yards allowed per game and No. 87 with just 19 sacks. But in rushing yards per carry allowed, Michigan is No. 39, with 3.77.
Perhaps what’s most remarkable about Michigan’s defense, considering its stingy yardage allowed number, is that the Wolverines rank No. 96 nationally with 17 turnovers gained. Then again, USC is No. 51 with 22 turnovers gained and ranks No. 11 with 312.3 yards allowed.
The most statistically productive member of Michigan’s defensive line is senior end Craig Roh. He has four sacks, tied for the team lead, and his 10˝ career sacks and 26˝ tackles for loss both rank first on the team. He is in his third season as a starter.
USC has sold or distributed 8,900 of its allotted 12,000 tickets for the Outback Bowl, an athletic department spokesman said Wednesday.
The Outback Bowl will be USC’s 10th game against the Big Ten. The Gamecocks are 5-4, with three wins in its past four games against the Big Ten — the 2000 and 2001 Outback Bowls against Ohio State and last season’s Capital One Bowl against Nebraska.
Michigan is 12-6 against the Southeastern Conference.