Big Ten: Jordan Kovacs

Michigan season preview

August, 19, 2013
8/19/13
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Can Michigan make the jump from the cusp to an actual Big Ten championship game? A look at the 2013 Wolverines:

MICHIGAN WOLVERINES

Coach: Brady Hoke (66-57, 19-7)

2012 record: 8-5

Key losses: QB/RB Denard Robinson; WR Roy Roundtree; RG Patrick Omameh; C Elliott Mealer; DE Craig Roh; DT Will Campbell; MLB Kenny Demens; CB J.T. Floyd; S Jordan Kovacs

[+] EnlargeDerrick Green
Tom Hauck for ESPN.comCould running back Derrick Green be the key to Michigan's season? The touted freshman is expected to compete for the starting job right away.
Key returnees: QB Devin Gardner; RB Fitzgerald Toussaint; WR Jeremy Gallon; TE Devin Funchess; LT Taylor Lewan; RT Michael Schofield; DT Quinton Washington; DE Frank Clark; LB Jake Ryan (injured); LB Desmond Morgan; CB Blake Countess; CB Raymon Taylor; S Thomas Gordon

Newcomer to watch: There are a couple of freshmen who could see major snaps for Michigan, but the most notable is running back Derrick Green. He will push Toussaint for the starting job immediately and could end up as the featured back by the end of the season. The other two freshmen who could see major time are early enrollees: defensive back Dymonte Thomas and tight end Jake Butt. Neither will likely start, but both will be key reserves or used in subpackages.

Biggest games in 2013: Michigan had all of its key games on the road last season. This year, the Wolverines will have their two toughest games at home: Notre Dame on Sept. 7, and Ohio State on Nov. 30 in the regular-season closer. The Buckeyes, though, cap a difficult month for the Wolverines, who have trips to Michigan State on Nov. 2 and Northwestern on Nov. 16.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Who will run the ball? As the Wolverines complete their transition to a pro-style offense, they need a capable running back lining up behind quarterback Gardner. Considering the importance of play-action in what they will try to do offensively, they will need a back to gain yards to keep the whole offense balanced and a defense confused. The main candidates are Toussaint and Green, with freshman De'Veon Smith, redshirt freshman Drake Johnson and junior Thomas Rawls also pushing for time.

Forecast: Good. Like most teams that are near the end of a rebuilding phase, depth at certain positions is questionable, which means anything written here would be for naught if Gardner, Gallon or Lewan were injured for any length of time. Provided those three offensive stalwarts stay healthy, the Wolverines have a strong shot at making a run to the Big Ten championship game.

Michigan’s season could come down to whether it can beat Michigan State and Northwestern on the road. It is entirely possible that by the time the Wolverines and Buckeyes play in the regular-season finale that both will have wrapped up divisional titles and Big Ten title game trips. The best news for Michigan in all of this is how the schedule breaks down. After Notre Dame in Week 2, the Wolverines have only one real challenge -- at Penn State -- until November. This will allow a young offensive line to gain confidence and chemistry, and a young defensive line a chance to figure out how to beat Big Ten linemen.

A road win at any of those three places could lift Michigan into a different level, because one of the major issues with coach Brady Hoke has been his inability to win a game of any significance away from Michigan Stadium, where he has yet to lose.

Big Ten lunchtime links

May, 31, 2013
5/31/13
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Big Friday night plans. I'm going to go see E. Gordon Gee at The Improv ...
2012 record: 8-5

2012 conference record: 6-2

Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 3

Top returners:

QB Devin Gardner, WR Jeremy Gallon, TE Devin Funchess, LT Taylor Lewan, RT Michael Schofield, DT Quinton Washington, LB Desmond Morgan, LB Jake Ryan, CB Raymon Taylor, S Thomas Gordon

Key losses

QB Denard Robinson, WR Roy Roundtree, OG Patrick Omameh, C Elliott Mealer, DE Craig Roh, DT William Campbell, LB Kenny Demens, CB J.T. Floyd, S Jordan Kovacs

2012 statistical leaders

Rushing: Denard Robinson (1,266 yards)

Passing: Denard Robinson (1,319 yards)

Receiving: Jeremy Gallon* (829 yards)

Tackles: Jake Ryan* (88)

Sacks: Jake Ryan* (4.0)

Interceptions: Thomas Gordon* and Raymon Taylor* (2)

Spring answers

1. Defensive line fine: Michigan had to replace a four-year starter in Craig Roh as well as defensive tackle Will Campbell up front. It doesn’t seem like it will be an issue. Michigan has a potential star in Frank Clark at rush end as well as depth at the position with Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. Keith Heitzman, for now, seems to have locked up a spot at strong side end, but there is a lot of talent there, too. The Wolverines have depth at all four spots and while competitions will continue into the fall, Michigan should be able to rotate at defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s leisure.

2. Devin Gardner’s progression: After the way he played toward the end of last season, there was not much doubt about Gardner as the starter, but Michigan’s coaches appear happy with his growth throughout the offseason. He has developed as a quarterback the way the coaching staff has liked, and this is even more critical because he is the only healthy scholarship quarterback until Shane Morris arrives next month. Gardner's teammates believe in him and he is setting up for a big year.

3. Tight end weapons: Michigan still doesn’t have great depth at tight end, but what the Wolverines do have is a young group of guys who will become big targets for Gardner as the position evolves into a more featured role. Devin Funchess could have a breakout sophomore season and Jake Butt has a similar skill set. A.J. Williams slimmed down as well, perhaps turning him into more than just an extra blocker.

Fall questions

1. Who runs the ball: Michigan was never going to be able to answer this question in the spring with Fitzgerald Toussaint coming off a broken leg and freshmen Derrick Green and Deveon Smith still not on campus. But none of the running backs who participated in spring made a lasting impression on the coaches, meaning if he is healthy, Toussaint will likely receive the first chance at winning the job in the fall.

2. Can Jake Ryan be replaced: Michigan seems confident with its grouping of Brennen Beyer and Cam Gordon at strongside linebacker, but part of what made Ryan Michigan’s best defender was his ability to instinctively be around the ball. Whether or not Beyer or Gordon can do that in games remains to be seen. If the combination of those two can approximate that, Michigan’s defense should be fine.

3. Can the interior of the line hold up: Michigan is replacing both of its guards and its center. While the combination of redshirt sophomore Jack Miller at center and redshirt freshmen Ben Braden and Kyle Kalis at guard has a ton of talent, none have taken a meaningful snap in a game before. How they mesh with returning tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, along with how they connect with each other on combination blocks on the inside, could determine not only Michigan’s running success this fall, but also how many games the Wolverines win in Brady Hoke’s third season.
Only 22 Big Ten players heard their names called during the 2013 NFL draft, the league's lowest total in nearly two decades (it had 21 draftees in 1994).

But as soon as the draft ended Saturday, the free-agent signings began. And there were plenty around the Big Ten from all 12 squads.

Here's our first look list of free-agent signings or team tryouts from the conference. As a reminder, this is not a final list, and we'll have updates later on either here on the blog or on Twitter.

Here we go ...

ILLINOIS

C Graham Pocic, Houston Texans
DE Justin Staples, Cleveland Browns
DE Glenn Foster, New Orleans Saints

INDIANA

C Will Matte, Kansas City Chiefs (tryout)
DE Larry Black Jr., Cincinnati Bengals
DT Adam Replogle, Atlanta Falcons

IOWA

WR Keenan Davis, Cleveland Browns
OL Matt Tobin, Philadelphia Eagles
QB James Vandenberg, Minnesota Vikings

MICHIGAN

WR Roy Roundtree, Cincinnati Bengals
S Jordan Kovacs, Miami Dolphins
LB Kenny Demens, Arizona Cardinals
DE Craig Roh, Carolina Panthers
OL Elliott Mealer, New Orleans Saints
OL Patrick Omameh, San Francisco 49ers
OL Ricky Barnum, Washington Redskins
LB Brandin Hawthorne, St. Louis Rams
(WR Darryl Stonum, dismissed before the 2012 season, signed with the Kansas City Chiefs)

MICHIGAN STATE

CB Johnny Adams, Houston Texans
DT Anthony Rashad White, Pittsburgh Steelers
OL Chris McDonald, New England Patriots

MINNESOTA

CB Troy Stoudermire, Cincinnati Bengals
TE MarQueis Gray, San Francisco 49ers
CB Michael Carter, Minnesota Vikings

NEBRASKA

DE Eric Martin, New Orleans Saints
LB Will Compton, Washington Redskins
TE Ben Cotton, San Diego Chargers
TE/FB Kyler Reed, Jacksonville Jaguars
K Brett Maher, New York Jets
DE Cameron Meredith, Oakland Raiders

NORTHWESTERN

OL Patrick Ward, Miami Dolphins
DL Brian Arnfelt, Pittsburgh Steelers
LB David Nwabuisi, Carolina Panthers (tryout)
WR Demetrius Fields, Chicago Bears (tryout)

OHIO STATE

CB Travis Howard, Houston Texans
S Orhian Johnson, Houston Texans
FB Zach Boren, Houston Texans
TE Jake Stoneburner, Green Bay Packers
DE Nathan Williams, Minnesota Vikings
DL Garrett Goebel, St. Louis Rams
LB Etienne Sabino, New York Giants

PENN STATE

OL Mike Farrell, Pittsburgh Steelers
CB Stephon Morris, New England Patriots
OL Matt Stankiewitch, New England Patriots
FB Michael Zordich, Carolina Panthers

PURDUE

CB Josh Johnson, San Diego Chargers
QB Robert Marve, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
RB Akeem Shavers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

WISCONSIN

CB Marcus Cromartie, San Diego Chargers
CB Devin Smith, Dallas Cowboys
S Shelton Johnson, Oakland Raiders

Big Ten lunch links

April, 25, 2013
4/25/13
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The links are on the clock ...
The spectacle known as the NFL draft kicks off tonight in New York with the first round. As Brian pointed out late last week, the Big Ten is in danger of going without a first-round selection for the first time since the NFL-AFL merger.

Mel Kiper Jr.'s final Big Board Insider doesn't include a Big Ten player, and both Kiper's Insider and Todd McShay's Insider final mock first rounds have no Big Ten players.

Lets look beyond the first round, as ESPN Scouts Inc. has put together a complete seven-round mock draft Insider.

How did the Big Ten contingent fare? If Scouts Inc., is correct, 42 selections will be made before a Big Ten player hears his name called. Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short is the first Big Ten player on the board at No. 43, going to Tampa Bay in the second round. Only one other Big Ten player, Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, is pegged as a second-round pick.

Here's the rest of the Scouts Inc. Big Ten forecast (in order of predicted selection)...

Round 3: Michigan State RB Le'Veon Bell, Wisconsin C Travis Frederick, Ohio State DE John Simon, Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins, Illinois DT Akeem Spence

Round 4: Michigan State DE William Gholston, Illinois DE Michael Buchanan, Illinois G Hugh Thornton, Ohio State T Reid Fragel

Round 5: Michigan State TE Dion Sims, Penn State DT Jordan Hill, Wisconsin T Ricky Wagner

Round 6: Michigan QB Denard Robinson (will play WR), Iowa CB Micah Hyde, Ohio State TE Jake Stoneburner, Penn State LB Gerald Hodges, Michigan State CB Johnny Adams, Purdue CB Josh Johnson

Round 7: Nebraska S Daimion Stafford, Illinois CB Terry Hawthorne, Penn State LB Michael Mauti, Ohio State DE Nathan Williams (listed at OLB)

Thoughts: Overall, it's a pretty gloomy draft forecast for the Big Ten. Denard Robinson in the sixth round? That's lower than many have predicted. Ohio State's Hankins, once considered a likely first-round selection, wouldn't be pleased to slip to No. 89 overall. The Scouts Inc. forecast also excludes Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead, plagued by knee injuries during his senior season. Other players not showing up include Minnesota QB MarQueis Gray (will play TE in the NFL), Iowa QB James Vandenberg, Penn State C Matt Stankiewitch, Wisconsin LB Mike Taylor and Michigan S Jordan Kovacs. Once again, Illinois is pegged to be one of the Big Ten's top NFL draft producers despite poor results on the field. Penn State's standout trio on defense will be waiting a while, although I wouldn't be surprised if a guy like Hill goes earlier than Round 5. Three Big Ten teams -- Indiana, Minnesota and Northwestern -- are pegged to be shut out of the draft. Future Big Ten member Rutgers is pegged to have six draft picks, led by defenders Khaseem Greene and Logan Ryan in the third round, while Maryland is pegged to have just one (TE Matt Furstenburg).

We'll have draft-related posts on the Big Ten both Friday morning and Monday after all the selections are made.
Michigan fans are still lamenting the loss of star linebacker Jake Ryan to a torn ACL, but they'll like what they hear from another key defender recovering from the same injury.

"I'm doing everything they allow me to do, and I feel really good doing it," Wolverines cornerback Blake Countess told ESPN.com on Thursday. "That's always a plus, to get back in the swing of things. Everything is feeling good."

[+] EnlargeBlake Countess
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioBlake Countess, a promising cornerback who redshirted last season, will begin spring practice with a rejuvenated purpose.
Countess' recovery is on track after he tore the ACL in his left knee in the first quarter of Michigan's season-opening loss to Alabama last September. Although he's not taking contact in spring practice, he's participating in individual drills and has no limitations on his running and cutting.

Barring a setback, Countess should be completely cleared for the start of preseason camp.

"In spring ball, there's really no need for me to go out there and push it," he said. "As far as contact, I can't wait to get back into it, but I'm not going to rush anything."

The 5-foot-10, 181-pound Countess played in 12 games as a true freshman in 2011, starting the final six and recording 44 tackles with six pass breakups and a forced fumble. Pegged as one of the nation's top young cornerbacks entering 2012, Countess instead underwent surgery in early October and redshirted the season.

Countess felt optimistic about his progress since the start of his post-surgery rehab, but a return to the practice field this spring has provided another boost.

"That's the biggest thing, getting the trust and confidence back [in the knee], and that's coming every day," he said. "I'm doing more drills, getting a little faster here. It's building every day. That's really what spring ball's really for, and I'm glad I'm getting to make those steps."

Unfortunately, Ryan is at the start of the process. Countess has talked to his teammate about what to expect.

"He's going to attack his rehab, just like he attacks everything else," Countess said. "Jake's already come to me with a couple questions. I'm here for Jake, just like Jake was here for me when I was going through it. He'll be back.

"As far as the team, the next guy has to step up, and we know that."

Raymon Taylor stepped in for Countess last year, and the secondary responded. Michigan tied for fifth nationally in pass yards allowed (169.5 ypg) and finished in the top 20 in both total defense and scoring defense.

Many expect Countess to regain his starting role alongside Taylor this season, but Countess knows there are no guarantees.

"I've been around the program and I've been with the coaches for a while, so I feel somewhat like a veteran," Countess said. "But I'm still fighting every day to prove myself to the other guys and to my coaches. There's no sense of entitlement."

Countess spent most of last season watching games and taking mental reps, but when asked what areas he needs to improve on the field, he mentioned his eyes.

"My freshman year, I had some eye problems, as far as glancing in the backfield and things like that, taking my eyes off of the receiver," he said. "So just my eyes, staying low in my backpedal, being more explosive out of breaks and making big-time plays."

Michigan needs more big plays from its defense, especially if Ryan, who accounted for four of the team's 12 forced fumbles last season, misses the season. Although the Wolverines didn't allow many pass yards, they also tied for last in the Big Ten in interceptions (7).

The secondary loses multiyear starters in cornerback J.T. Floyd and safety Jordan Kovacs, a co-captain whose leadership will be tough to replace.

"We have to step up and take it to the next level," Countess said. "8-5 is not acceptable, and the goal is always going to be a Big Ten championship."

The Wolverines look for replacements for two highly productive departed seniors in Denard Robinson and Jordan Kovacs.

Big Ten lunchtime links

March, 1, 2013
3/01/13
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Hooray for March.

B1G postseason position rankings: DB

February, 21, 2013
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Our postseason position rankings are getting close to wrapping up, but first let's put a bow on the defensive side of the ball with a look at the defensive backs.

Star power matters, but depth is also important. The secondary wasn't a particularly standout group for the Big Ten in 2012, though there were some elite players in the back end of the league's defenses. You can see how we ranked the DB groups in the preseason here. And here's how we see it now:

1. Michigan State (Preseason ranking: 1): So maybe Johnny Adams didn't have quite the season we expected out of him, but he was still easily one of the best cornerbacks in the league. And Darqueze Dennard reached an elite level, arguably turning in a better year than Adams at the other cornerback spot. Isaiah Lewis remained one of the top safeties in the league. The Spartans finished third nationally in pass efficiency defense, and their secondary was also stout in run support and on the occasional blitz.

2. Ohio State (Preseason: 2): Teams could pass on the Buckeyes, especially early, as they ended up ranked just 11th in the league in passing yards allowed. But Bradley Roby had an All-American year at cornerback, and Travis Howard grabbed four interceptions while improving over the course of the fall. While Ohio State's safeties sometimes went for the big hit instead of making the safe play, this group had star power and played great when it mattered.

3. Nebraska (Preseason: 4): The numbers would suggest a higher ranking, as the Cornhuskers finished fourth nationally in passing yards allowed and ninth in pass efficiency defense. Yet we can't forget some of the secondary's problems in open-field tackling and helping against the run in big games, or how Aaron Murray and Georgia dissected it in the Capital One Bowl. Still, this group -- led by P.J. Smith, Daimion Stafford and Ciante Evans -- was deep and clearly comprised the strength of Nebraska's defense.

[+] EnlargeMichael Carter
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsGophers defensive back Michael Carter had a breakout game in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, recording seven tackles and two INTs.
4. Minnesota (Preseason: 10): The biggest climber on our board, the Gophers made a major improvement in their secondary thanks to the breakout year by Michael Carter and the return of Troy Stoudermire at the other corner spot. Derrick Wells also made a major impact at safety as Minnesota went from having one of the worst pass defenses in the country in 2011 to the No. 23 pass efficiency defense in 2012.

5. Michigan (Preseason: 3): The Wolverines lost Blake Countess in the first half of the opener and didn't have anyone make first- or second-team All-Big Ten from its secondary. Still, this group had two sturdy seniors in safety Jordan Kovacs and cornerback J.T. Floyd and finished second in the league in pass defense. Those numbers may be a bit skewed by the fact that Michigan didn't face many high-powered passing teams, but this group held its own.

6. Wisconsin (Preseason: 7): The late-game breakdowns by the secondary in 2011 were a distant memory as the Badgers were solid all the way around at defensive back in 2012. They finished third in the league in pass efficiency defense. Getting Devin Smith back at corner really helped, as did the marked improvement of Marcus Cromartie. Safeties Dezmen Southward and Shelton Johnson also had good years. The bad news for Wisconsin is that only Southward returns from that veteran group.

7. Penn State (Preseason: 9): The defensive backfield was the big question mark on the Nittany Lions' defense heading into the season with four new starters. But despite a lack of experienced depth, the starting group of Stephon Morris, Adrian Amos, Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong prevented Penn State from experiencing a drop-off at DB, allowing just 15 touchdown passes in 12 games.

8. Purdue (Preseason: 5): A secondary with two cornerbacks as talented as Ricardo Allen and Josh Johnson should not be ranked this low. But the Boilermakers simply got burned too much in big games to be ranked much higher than this. They did tie for the league lead with 14 interceptions, paced by Landon Feichter's four picks.

9. Northwestern (Preseason: 11): The Wildcats' secondary was much, much better when cornerback Nick VanHoose was healthy, and Ibraheim Campbell had a terrific year at safety. This group showed its potential early in the season and in the bowl win over Mississippi State. But the late-game breakdowns, particularly against Michigan (the Roy Roundtree catch) and Nebraska, prevent a higher ranking.

10. Iowa (Preseason: 8): Micah Hyde was named the Big Ten defensive back of the year. This really happened. I looked it up again to make sure. Not that Hyde had a bad season. He just didn't really stand out nearly as much as guys like Dennard, Carter or Roby. Hyde and fellow cornerback B.J. Lowery formed a good tandem, but safety play was shaky for the Hawkeyes and offenses torched them down the stretch. Iowa allowed opponents a league-worst 63.5 completion percentage.

11. Illinois (Preseason: 6): Terry Hawthorne remained an underrated cornerback who should hear his name called in the April NFL draft. Outside of that, it's hard to find many positives for the Illini secondary, as the team finished last in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense and didn't have much else to hang its hat on.

12. Indiana (Preseason: 12): The Hoosiers had hopes of making strides in the secondary with returning starters Lawrence Barnett, Greg Heban and Mark Murphy. But Indiana gave up more touchdown passes (23) than any other league team while only intercepting seven passes. While not all of the pass defense problems can be blamed on the secondary, of course, it's clear this team still lacks high-impact players in the back end.
The Texas vs. The Nation college all-star game takes place Feb. 2 in Allen, Texas, and the Big Ten will have eight players on the field. The game pits NFL hopefuls originally from Texas or who played their college ball in Texas against players from around the country. The Texas team doesn't consistent entirely of those with Texas roots.

Here's the full Big Ten contingent (positions designated by the game organizers):

Texas team
The Nation team
Notes: Gray split time between quarterback and receiver at Minnesota but shifted to wide receiver midway through his senior season in part because it's a likelier spot for him at the next level. Former Penn State wide receiver Justin Brown, who transferred to Oklahoma before the 2012 season, is playing for the Texas team. Linebacker Evan Frierson, who began his career at Illinois before transferring to Illinois State, is playing for the Nation squad.

Best and worst: Michigan

January, 3, 2013
1/03/13
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We're continuing our series looking at the best and worst moments of the 2012 season for each Big Ten team. Next in our series: the Michigan Wolverines.

Best moment: Ending Sparty's streak

While Michigan State will never be as big a rival for the Maize and Blue as Ohio State, the four-game losing streak to their in-state competitor still stung. That's why beating the Spartans 12-10 on Oct. 20 in Ann Arbor was the highlight of a season that mostly included losses in every big game. The way Michigan did it made the win feel even more satisfying. It was a physical slugfest throughout, and Michigan State took a 10-9 lead with 5:48 left and had a chance to close the game out. But the Wolverines made a key stop on defense, and Denard Robinson led them into field goal range on the final drive before Brendan Gibbons booted a 38-yard game-winner with five seconds to go. The dramatic victory kept Michigan in position to for the Legends Division title and finally quieted Michigan State fans' bragging rights. "This program was in desperate need for a win in this game," safety Jordan Kovacs told reporters after the game.

Worst moment: Lost in Lincoln

Unfortunately for Michigan, there's a lot to choose from here. There was the blowout in the opener versus Alabama that quickly exposed a top-10 ranking as fraudulent. There was the turnover disaster at Notre Dame. There was the second-half stinker in the loss at hated Ohio State. And just this week, there was the blown lead to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. But Brady Hoke claims to only care about winning Big Ten titles, so with that in mind the 23-9 loss at Nebraska on Oct. 27 was the worst of the season. Michigan fell behind in the Legends race and spent the rest of the season hoping for a Huskers loss that never came. And it was an ugly performance on the road. After Robinson hurt his arm early on, the offense fell apart. Russell Bellomy looked unprepared for the moment, throwing three interceptions while going 3-for-16. Michigan had just 188 yards of offense. In some ways, this may have been a positive turning point long term for the program, because it led to Devin Gardner taking over quarterback duties full time. But the game itself was still a 2012 low point.

Previous best/worst:

Minnesota

B1G bowl primer: Outback Bowl

December, 21, 2012
12/21/12
2:00
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Our snapshots of each bowl game featuring a Big Ten team continues.

OUTBACK BOWL

Michigan (8-4) vs. South Carolina (10-2)

Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa

When: Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET

TV: ESPN

About Michigan: After an 11-2 record and a Sugar Bowl championship in coach Brady Hoke's first season, Michigan entered the fall pegged for even bigger things. But a blowout loss to Alabama in the season opener indicated the Wolverines would have a rougher time in Hoke's second go-round. If teams were ranked based on the quality of their losses, Michigan would be up there as its only setbacks came against the nation's two undefeated teams -- Notre Dame and Ohio State -- Alabama and Legends Division champion Nebraska. The flip side is the Wolverines lack many quality wins and nearly fell to a good Northwestern team and in-state rival Michigan State. Quarterback Denard Robinson struggled early, surged early in Big Ten play and then suffered an elbow injury that sidelined him for a month. Devin Gardner sparked the offense late, while the defense had another strong season (11th nationally) despite some youth and depth questions.

About South Carolina: Like Michigan, South Carolina entered the season with expectations to challenge for a league title and maybe more. After a shaky opener against Vanderbilt, the Gamecocks surged to a 6-0 start punctuated by a dominating performance against Georgia. But the schedule didn't let up and South Carolina dropped consecutive road contests against LSU and Florida to fall out of the national title race (and, as it turned out, the SEC East division race). Although the slide ended Oct. 27 against Tennessee, South Carolina lost star running back Marcus Lattimore to a gruesome knee injury. The Gamecocks finished strong, though, beating in-state rival Clemson to record back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time in team history. SEC Defensive Player of the Year Jadeveon Clowney triggers a fast and physical unit that ranks in the top 10 nationally in total defense, scoring defense, sacks and tackles for loss.

Key players, Michigan: Robinson plays his final game in Maize and Blue and should be a factor as a ball-carrier, but Gardner should be the primary signal caller after moving the offense well at quarterback until the second half of the Ohio State game. Gardner fired eight touchdown passes and four interceptions in the final four games after taking over as the starter. He got receivers like senior Roy Roundtree much more involved in the offense. Left tackle Taylor Lewan, the Big Ten's offensive lineman of the year, has the daunting dask of dealing with Clowney. Sophomore linebacker Jake Ryan triggers the defense with 14.5 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles, and senior safety Jordan Kovacs leads a secondary that will be without top cornerback J.T. Floyd (suspended) in the bowl.

Key players, South Carolina: Clowney is the headliner for South Carolina, a freakishly athletic sophomore who could play in the NFL right now. He ranks second nationally in both sacks per game (1.18) and tackles for loss per game (1.95), and has two forced fumbles. Safety D.J. Swearinger is a second-team All-SEC selection who had two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Dual-threat quarterback Connor Shaw is healthy after missing the Clemson game, and Bruce Ellington and Ace Sanders form a nice combo at receiver. Sanders also is one of the nation's elite punt returners, ranking fourth nationally in average (14.5 ypr).

Did you know: Michigan and South Carolina have met twice before. The Gamecocks beat the Wolverines at Michigan Stadium in 1980, and Michigan registered a 34-3 win at South Carolina in 1985. ... This will be Michigan's fifth appearance in the Outback Bowl. Michigan is 3-1 in the Outback/Hall of Fame Bowl, beating Alabama (28-24) in the 1988 game, North Carolina State (42-7) in the 1994 contest and Florida (38-30) in the 2003 game. The lone setback came against Alabama (17-14) in the 1997 game. ... The Gamecocks are bowl eligible for the eighth consecutive season under coach Steve Spurrier, who has taken South Carolina to six bowl games. No other coach in school history has taken the Gamecocks to more than three bowl games (Jim Carlen and Joe Morrison). Spurrier, who faces Michigan for the first time in his career, is 2-4 in bowl games at South Carolina. ... The Gamecocks are 2-1 in the Outback Bowl with a 24-7 win over Ohio State in 2001 as well as a 31-28 victory over the Buckeyes in 2002. In the program's last appearance, South Carolina fell to Iowa 31-10 in 2009.

 

Big Ten lunchtime links

December, 21, 2012
12/21/12
12:00
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Many Christmases ago, I went to buy a doll for my son. I reached for the last one they had, but so did another man. As I rained blows upon him, I realized there had to be another way. ... Out of that a new holiday was born -- a Festivus for the rest of us!

Season report card: Michigan

December, 21, 2012
12/21/12
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Final grades are in -- at least for each Big Ten team's regular season. We're handing out report cards on each team's offense, defense, special teams and overall performance in 2012.

Today's subject: the Michigan Wolverines.

Offense: B-minus

Michigan's offense went through several ups and downs this season. The Wolverines averaged a very respectable 30 points per game but ranked just 80th nationally in total offense. The attack fizzled in big games against Alabama, Notre Dame, Michigan State and Nebraska, but averaged 40 points against the likes of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern and Purdue. Denard Robinson ran for 1,166 yards, but was limited in the back half of the season by injuries. Devin Gardner put a charge into the passing game starting in November, rejuvenating the seasons of receivers like Roy Roundtree and Jeremy Gallon. The running backs, though, were a major disappointment, as Fitz Toussaint followed up his 1,000-yard season in 2011 with just 515 yards this season. Much of the blame for that belonged to an offensive line that largely underperformed outside of All-American Taylor Lewan. Michigan's offense could look unstoppable one week and wholly underwhelming the next -- or even from one half to the next, as the season finale showed.

Defense: A-minus

Though not as dominant on the defensive line as they were a year ago, the Wolverines still found ways to develop into a terrific unit. They finished second in the Big Ten in both points allowed and total defense, and were No. 11 and No. 16 nationally in those categories, respectively. Will Campbell finally lived up to his recruiting hype as a senior by becoming a very good run-stuffer. Jake Ryan was a monster at linebacker, constantly disrupting other teams' plans. The secondary overcame the early loss of Blake Countess to do a very good job against the pass and had a great leader in senior safety Jordan Kovacs. Michigan's defense was short on superstars but long on production. The only mark against it was that the defense benefited from playing some questionable Big Ten offenses like Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Michigan State. Better attacks like Alabama, Air Force, Northwestern and Ohio State were able to exploit the Wolverines with speed on the perimeter.

Special teams: B-plus

Will Hagerup was named the Big Ten's punter of the year, and placekicker Brendan Gibbons had a strong year, booting the game-winner against Michigan State and the field goal against Northwestern to send the game into overtime. The Wolverines were average in the return game, where Dennis Norfleet looks like a possible future star. Michigan did rank last in the Big Ten in kickoff coverage, however.

Overall: B-minus

If we were using Brady Hoke's grading scale, we'd have to give Michigan an 'F' since he has said any season that doesn't end with a Big Ten title is a failure. The Wolverines once again fell short of hanging a league or even a division championship banner during their 8-4 campaign. It's tough to be too critical of a team whose losses were to the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 teams in the Associated Press poll (Notre Dame, Alabama and Ohio State) and Legends Division champ Nebraska. But as Hoke would say, this is Michigan, fergawdsake. The Wolverines are expected to not just play great teams, but win their fair share. Robinson's interception-festival cost them a shot at beating Notre Dame on the road, the lack of a strong backup plan when he got hurt killed any chance of winning at Nebraska, and some curious second-half playcalling contributed to the Ohio State loss. Michigan beat the teams it should have beaten and finally broke the losing streak against Michigan State, which was good. But you don't achieve greatness simply by being on the same field with great teams. You have to beat some. That's why a victory against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl would raise the overall grade for the Wolverines' season.

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