- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
Michigan (8-4, 6-2) vs. South Carolina (10-2, 6-2)
Where: Tampa, Fla.
When: 1 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 1
Pivotal matchup: Michigan’s offensive line vs. South Carolina’s defensive front
This is a matchup highlighted by one high-caliber NFL-level matchup with Michigan junior left tackle Taylor Lewan up against South Carolina sophomore sensation Jadeveon Clowney. Lewan, if he leaves early for the NFL draft, is a projected top 15 selection. Clowney could be the top pick in the 2014 NFL Draft if he chooses to leave early.
But this matchup goes beyond the two stars. Michigan’s offensive line has struggled most of the season, especially run blocking. It is a point Wolverines coach Brady Hoke has harped on most of the season, from not finishing blocks to not creating holes big enough for any of their running backs to go through. Plus, Michigan’s running game will be hampered by the season-ending injury to junior Fitzgerald Toussaint, meaning either sophomore Thomas Rawls or converted quarterback Denard Robinson will be doing the majority of the running.
Clowney is the big playmaker for the Gamecocks with 21.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks. But all of South Carolina’s starting defensive linemen have at least 36 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss.
Up-and-comers to watch:
South Carolina running back Mike Davis: When Marcus Lattimore dislocated his knee and tore ligaments that ended his season, South Carolina turned to two players -- senior Kenny Miles and Davis, a freshman, to handle the workload left behind by one of the best running backs in college football.
Davis has averaged 5.3 yards a carry, rushing 52 times for 275 yards. Those numbers might not sound like a lot, but 33 of those carries and 138 of those yards came in the final four games of the season -- the game Lattimore was injured and the three after that.
With Lattimore headed to the NFL and Miles out of eligibility, Davis becomes the likely choice to become South Carolina’s starting running back in 2013. He’ll get a chance to kick-start next season against Michigan.
Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner: The Wolverines jumpstarted their transition to a pro-style offense when Robinson injured his elbow in late October, switching to the junior Gardner at quarterback and moving from a hybrid spread offense to more under-center plays.
Gardner, who began the season as a wide receiver, flourished in the role and likely won the job as Robinson’s replacement at quarterback before the season ended. In four games, Gardner completed 57 of 90 passes for 1,005 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions. He averaged 251.25 yards a game and 17.6 yards a completion -- proof of a more vertical game which has helped his two main receivers, Jeremy Gallon and Roy Roundtree.
Gardner’s efficiency also opened Michigan to experimenting with Robinson, who could play quarterback, running back and wide receiver against South Carolina.
Recruits to impress:
Offensive tackle Na’Ty Rodgers (Pomfret, Md./McDonough): The No. 27 tackle in the class has South Carolina as one of his favorites, briefly considered Michigan and is scheduled to play in the Under Armour All-America Game. Why is this important? The game is in St. Petersburg, Fla., just a few days after the Outback Bowl. While the recruits won’t be in the Tampa area while South Carolina is there (the UA teams practice in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.), a good showing by the Gamecocks offense against a good Michigan front seven could go a long way to solidifying an SEC decision for Rodgers.
Running back Derrick Green (Richmond, Va./Hermitage): The No. 41 player in the ESPN 150 and the No. 5 running back in the country, Green is a major target for the Wolverines and one whom they have been in on for a long time. He has been pretty quiet in his recruitment lately, but Michigan has a major need for a game-breaking running back. With Toussaint an unknown for the start of next season after being injured against Iowa in November and then having surgery, Green could have an easy path to early playing time with Michigan. A win -- but some struggles from the Wolverines’ running backs -- could solidify that message.