In just a few short week’s time, the Michigan Wolverines will be back on the gridiron for the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Florida. In search of their third nine-win season in as many tries under the direction of head coach Jim Harbaugh, the Wolverines will have to fend off a challenge from SEC East upstart South Carolina. On paper, the Maize and Blue appear to match-up favorably against the Gamecocks, but it must be mentioned that the Wolverines have yet to defeat a team with a winning record this season. South Carolina, meanwhile, has notched two such victories and three total against teams who qualified for the postseason.
With a majority of starters set to return in 2018, this year’s bowl game takes on added significance for Harbaugh’s Wolverines as they hope to build momentum heading into what could be a very special campaign next fall.
All that in mind, the Wolverine Report crew are here to give you the rundown of the three most important things Michigan supporters should watch for when kick-off finally rolls around on New Year’s Day 2018.
- Peters motivated by news of upcoming QB competition?
With the arrival of transfer quarterback Shea Patterson imminent, incumbent starter Brandon Peters will be eager to use this contest to cement an early lead in the race to the top of the 2018 depth chart. Given Patterson’s pedigree as a highly sought-after five-star recruit in the 2016 class who enjoyed some early success against SEC competition at Ole Miss, he is likely to give Peters a heck of a run for his money this fall. While nothing’s going to be written in ink on January 1, Peters executing the offense at a high level against the Gamecocks will assuredly put him in a stronger position to retain his job heading into the spring and summer. How Peters responds in his first game action since the news of Patterson’s arrival hit should tell us a lot about both his competitiveness and readiness to lead Michigan to the heights they hope to reach in 2018.
- Who steps into Mo Hurst’s role on the defensive line?
Rumors have suggested for a little while now that star defensive lineman Mo Hurst may pass on the bowl game this year to avoid unnecessary risk of injury ahead of what should be a first-round NFL payday just a few short months from now. With a life-changing opportunity on the horizon, watching this one from the sidelines is without question the right decision to be made here.
With that in mind, Michigan would then be left to defend the Gamecocks without their most consistent interior defensive lineman. Hurst has been a true force of nature in the middle of the Wolverine defense this year and his potential absence would certainly be felt on many levels. That said, Harbaugh and his staff have done an excellent job on the recruiting trail over the past two years, assembling a stable of highly-coveted athletes in the defensive front-seven. There are a number of intriguing players with promising high school pedigrees who should get a look at some additional playing time if Hurst is out of the lineup. Most prominent among the group of young defensive linemen is Aubrey Solomon, a former five-star tackle from south Georgia. Solomon has shown flashes of brilliance in a rotational role during this his true-freshman season, and is certainly one of the most important keys to the future of the Wolverine defense. Barring a major setback or roster addition between now and September. your two anchors on the front-line for Michigan’s defense in 2018 are Rashan Gary and Aubrey Solomon– January 1st we may get an extended glimpse into what that future may look like.
- Will a WR separate himself from the pack?
While the constantly in-flux state of the quarterback position certainly didn’t help their cause, Michigan’s star-studded quartet of freshman receivers did not make the kind of immediate impact the Wolverines needed to field an elite offense in 2017. Connecticut native Tarik Black, the most college-ready player of the group, made his presence felt throughout the summer and in the early going of the regular season, establishing himself as the team’s top option in the passing game. After he was beset by injury, however, the Wolverines’ were never quite able to find a player ready to step into the role of number-one wide receiver. 2017’s top-ranked receiver prospect Donovan Peoples-Jones displayed a few bursts of elite playmaking ability after stepping in for Black, but was simply not a consistent factor in the offense on a week-to-week basis.
Jim Harbaugh’s base offense will always revolve around the power game, the tight ends and the running backs first and foremost. However, in order to reach the pinnacle of college football, the Wolverines must feature a dynamic and diverse attack with outside receivers capable of turning the tide of a game at a moment’s notice.