Hours before Michigan's game at Nebraska, Wolverines offensive tackle Taylor Lewan and two of his linemates killed some time in the hotel by watching South Carolina take on Tennessee.
Not surprisingly, Lewan soon noticed No. 7 in maroon for the Gamecocks. Sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is hard to miss.
Lewan had no idea at the time that he'd be spending most of December watching Clowney. Michigan faces South Carolina on Jan. 1 at the Outback Bowl, and no individual matchup in the game brings more intrigue than Lewan vs. Clowney.
Both men have appeared on All-America teams and earned conference recognition, as Lewan won the Big Ten's Rimington-Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year award and was a consensus first-team All-Big Ten pick. Clowney claimed the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation's top defensive end, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award from the league's coaches and unanimous All-SEC honors. Clowney recorded 13 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss this season.
"I can't say enough about him," Lewan said. "He's a great player, and I'm excited about the opportunity to go against him. Big, physical player, gets his hands off, swings a lot."
Lewan hasn't faced a defensive end quite like the 6-6, 256-pound, freakishly athletic Clowney in the Big Ten this season. He said the closest comparisons are Ohio State's John Simon -- the 2012 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year -- and former Purdue star Ryan Kerrigan, who won 2010 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors before becoming a first-round pick of the Washington Redskins.
Lewan has been projected as a potential first-round draft pick if he chooses to forgo his senior season. Clowney can't enter the draft until after the 2013 season, but he's the most draft-ready true sophomore in college football. Lewan says he's not thinking about his draft decision, or whether a matchup against Clowney gives him a gauge of what he could do at the next level.
But he does plan to see plenty of the South Carolina star in Tampa.
"He lines up across from the left tackle every time, from what I've seen," Lewan said. "I'm not sure what their game plan is, but I'm sure we'll be going against each other a lot."
Lewan acknowledges that Michigan's offensive line has had its ups and downs this season. The Wolverines eclipsed 400 yards of offense six times and were held to fewer than 300 yards four times, including in a Nov. 24 loss to rival Ohio State in the regular-season finale.
Although "one game won't define us as an offensive line," Lewan knows there's a lot at stake against Clowney and a South Carolina defense that ranks in the top 20 nationally in total defense (12th) scoring defense (13th), rushing defense (15th), sacks (fifth) and tackles for loss (19th).
"There's three seniors on the starting offensive line right now (guards Patrick Omameh and Ricky Barnum and Mealer), and I want them to go out with a bang," Lewan said. "There'd be nothing better than going out with an Outback win."