Both Brady Hoke and Steve Spurrier are trying to take that last step that will vault their respective programs into the nation's elite. The two coaches look for clues how to achieve that for next season on Tuesday when Michigan plays South Carolina in the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla.
No. 19 Michigan (8-4) finished second to Nebraska in the Legends Division of the Big Ten, and three of its losses came to the top three teams in the country -- No. 1 Notre Dame, No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Ohio State -- as well as the Cornhuskers. The Wolverines were unable to prevent their archrivals from completing an unbeaten season, losing 26-21 to the Buckeyes on Nov. 24 after failing to score in the second half.
Despite failing to come away with a victory in any of those marquee games, Hoke thinks his team will apply lessons learned from those defeats in this contest.
"I think it's always a benefit when you play good football teams whether you win or lose," he said. "You learn how you have to play. We have to do a better job of taking care of the football, have to run the ball better."
Running the ball has not been a problem for Hoke in his two seasons at Michigan with Denard Robinson as the team's offensive focal point. Despite missing two games due to an injury to his throwing elbow, the senior has 1,166 rushing yards and seven touchdowns to go with 1,319 passing yards and nine scoring tosses.
The injury, however, completely eliminated his throwing, forcing him to line up as running back in the last two games. Robinson, who pleaded guilty to driving with a suspended license Dec. 18 but remains eligible to play, ran for 220 yards in those contests.
He is hoping the time off will allow him to resume being a dual threat.
"I feel pretty good, to be honest with you," Robinson said when the game was announced earlier this month. "When we start practicing, I can have more say. I'm not throwing how I want to throw, but I'll get there."
This will be the final game for "Shoelace," who was the first player in FBS history to rush and pass for 1,500 yards in 2010. Robinson has 4,395 rushing yards, 78 shy of passing Anthony Thomas for second on the school's all-time list. His 42 rushing TDs are third in Michigan's annals.
If Robinson can't play quarterback, Devin Gardner will likely make his fifth straight start there. He has thrown for 1,005 yards with eight touchdowns and four interceptions to go with seven rushing scores since taking over for Robinson.
Regardless of who is under center, both players will have to account for South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney, who was named a first-team All-American and SEC defensive player of the year after setting single-season school records for sacks with 13 and tackles for loss with 21 1/2. The sophomore also won the Hendricks Award, given to the nation's top defensive end.
Michigan's offensive line, however, could be up to the challenge as it has allowed a Big Ten-low 15 sacks.
Even with Clowney, the 11th-ranked Gamecocks (10-2) were relegated to a third-place finish in the East Division of the annually powerful SEC, losing on the road in consecutive weeks to then-No. 9 LSU and then-No. 3 Florida in October. South Carolina regrouped to win its final four games, including a 27-17 victory at previously 12th-ranked Clemson on Nov. 24 behind 4 1/2 sacks from Clowney, giving the program consecutive seasons with double-digit victories for the first time in school history.
The school extended Spurrier's contract two years through 2017 on Monday, and the veteran coach still relishes the fight to bring that elusive conference title to Columbia.
"We have achieved a lot of goals, but we have not yet won the SEC championship," said Spurrier, who is the school's all-time leader with 65 wins. "Hopefully, we can do that within the next couple of years."
Spurrier has a pair of capable quarterbacks after Dylan Thompson had a strong game at Clemson in place of the injured Connor Shaw, throwing for 310 yards and three touchdowns. Shaw, who has thrown for 1,732 yards and 15 TDs, is expected to be fully recovered from his foot injury by the time of this game, but Spurrier has not said which quarterback would start versus the Wolverines.
"We'll just get both of them ready to play," he said. "See how it goes."
Whoever Spurrier elects to start could have an advantage because Michigan will be without starting cornerback J.T. Floyd.
Floyd is one of three Wolverines suspended, along with punter Will Hagerup and backup linebacker Brandin Hawthorne, for a violation of team rules. Hoke didn't specify which team rules were broken.
The loss of Floyd could be costly for Michigan because the Wolverines have one of the best pass defenses in the FBS, allowing an average of 155.2 yards.
Thompson or Shaw will have to compensate for a team without injured star running back Marcus Lattimore, who suffered a devastating season-ending knee injury against Tennessee on Oct. 27 and opted to forgo his final season of eligibility and enter the draft Dec. 12.
This is Spurrier's second trip to the Outback Bowl and fourth overall for South Carolina. The Gamecocks beat Ohio State in both 2001 and 2002, but lost to Iowa in their most recent appearance in 2009.
The teams have split two all-time meetings, with Michigan winning the most recent one in 1985.
Denard Robinson will return to his home state for his final game to take on South Carolina in a defensive battle. The Gamecocks' battle-tested defense ranked 12th in the nation. Under coordinator Greg Mattison, Michigan's D took another step forward, finishing second in the Big Ten.