- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Jordan Kovacs spent part of his time at the Big Ten media days in July refusing to admit anything about the SEC's supposed speed advantage leading up to Michigan's season opener against Alabama.
He acknowledged, at the time, how big facing the then-defending national champion would be for Michigan and how the Crimson Tide would be "the best team I've ever played."
Paths have diverged for Alabama and Michigan since the teams played in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 1. The Crimson Tide will face Notre Dame -- another Wolverines opponent this season -- in the BCS National Championship Game. Michigan, meanwhile, lost to the top four teams on its schedule, lost its starting quarterback to injury the last third of the season and in some ways took a step back from the success it had in Brady Hoke's first season.
Now, though, the Wolverines have one more shot to knock off a team from the SEC, the best conference in the country the past half-decade, when they face South Carolina in the Outback Bowl on Tuesday.
"They have had a lot of tremendous success in recent years," senior right guard Patrick Omameh said. "I feel like it would be very significant, a victory over them."
Omameh meant both the Gamecocks and the SEC. The Big Ten is 1-1 this season against the SEC (Michigan's 41-14 loss to Alabama and Northwestern's 23-13 win over Vanderbilt). The two leagues will go heads up in three bowl games this year.
And like in all of its other bowl games, the Big Ten's teams are favored in none of those games. Beating the SEC is often a leaguewide problem for the Big Ten. It was 1-2 against the SEC in last year's bowls and went 1-3 following the 2010 season.
Michigan, though, has had more success than most against the SEC in its history. The Wolverines are 7-4 against schools that were in the league at the time they played them, including five of their past seven bowl games against the league.
"We've beaten the SEC a few different times here," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "I don't know how much you look at that as you've got a great opponent and an opportunity to play one more game."
Sure, but considering the SEC's dominance, wouldn't it be a big thing?
"I think people make a lot about that," Hoke said. "More than I would."
Hoke is focusing his team on beating South Carolina, which will be among the tougher teams the Wolverines have faced this season -- a list including both national championship game participants, the Big Ten's representative in the Rose Bowl and an undefeated Ohio State team. The Wolverines lost all four of those games.
Michigan's players, though, want this type of challenge. The Wolverines started the season with a difficult loss to an SEC team. They would prefer not to end their season the same way.
"That's the way you want to go out as a senior," Kovacs said. "Playing one of the best teams in the nation."
South Carolina represents that.
For Michigan it is one more opportunity to beat a top team, one more opportunity to knock off the top conference in the country and one last opportunity to build momentum for next season, where the Wolverines will have to replace a lot of players who helped with the team's resurgence the past couple of years.
"I think you do [get momentum from a win]," Hoke said. "If you stumble, then it is a little more momentum you have to create as a coach and as your senior class."
The reasoning is simple. The second the game ends and the season is over, Michigan already needs to look toward next year.