It’s easy to assume that Michigan might not have much to play for in this year’s Outback Bowl. Not only are the Wolverines coming off a disappointing 8-4 season, but they were swept by their biggest rivals … again. Both winnable games, both ultimately frustrating, turnover-stained losses. Would “going out on a high note” against a four-loss South Carolina team really put a positive spin – or in the words of its coach, “the perfect punctuation mark” – on a disappointing season? Probably not, but that still doesn’t mean the Wolverines don’t have anything to play for.
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh acknowledged the challenge that South Carolina presents for the Wolverines, but he also noted the value in, “using our practice time, (and) this next ball game all to motivate us and improve as a football team.” Harbaugh often talks about “getting better every day,” and the additional month of practice that the Outback Bowl affords should help Michigan do just that.
This bowl-related practice time is valued by all coaches, but it is particularly valuable to younger teams like Michigan. The Wolverines turned over the majority of their roster this year, fielding 17 first-time starters, but that won’t be the case next season, as virtually the entire starting line-up returns. Sure, the Wolverines will miss All-American and team MVP Maurice Hurst and defensive captain Mike McCray (and possibly Chase Winovich, should he and his conference-leading eight sacks leave early for the NFL), but other than that, Michigan’s roster is loaded with first-year starters who will benefit from the additional practice time.
And nowhere is that more the case, or more important, than at quarterback. Michigan’s quarterback problems have been well documented. Wilton Speight never really got on track this season, and when he went down with a season-ending neck injury against Purdue, John O’Korn got his chance to lead the offense. After a promising debut against the Boilermakers, however, O’Korn regressed as the season progressed. Eventually, the Wolverines turned to redshirt sophomore Brandon Peters. Through three weeks as a starter, Peters proved effective if not exciting. Working with a limited playbook, Peters led Michigan to three consecutive victories before leaving the Wisconsin game with a concussion. This led to the return of John O’Korn who, well, struggled to finish the season.
With Speight transferring and O’Korn graduating, the starting job is Peters’ to lose. Sure, freshman Dylan McCaffrey is waiting in the wings, and providing he’s declared eligible to play, incoming transfer Shea Patterson will have a say in who starts. But as the incumbent, Peters is, as they say, the leader in the clubhouse to lead the Wolverines into next season.
Peters hasn’t shown enough one way or another yet to indicate whether he’s what the Wolverines are looking for to lead their team. Sure, there have been moments where Peters has displayed the arm strength and moxie that you’d want in your starting quarterback, but running the scaled back offense that the Wolverines have been running – Peters averaged just nine completions and a shade over 120 passing yards a game in his brief tenure as starter – it’s been difficult to judge what Peters can really do.
That shouldn’t be the case against South Carolina, however. With a month of practice with Peters as the unquestioned starter, expect Harbaugh to take the training wheels off the offense, so to speak. Add to that, that since this is a bowl game, there’s no reason to hold back. There’s nothing to lose, essentially. Harbaugh may not go as far as to channel Lloyd Carr, who in his final game as coach abandoned his maddeningly conservative offensive game plan in favor of throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Urban Meyer, Tim Tebow and the Florida Gators en route to an exciting 41-35 victory in the 2008 Capital One Bowl, but expect Harbaugh to open up the offense and give Peters more responsibility, nonetheless. How Peters handles the additional responsibility will go a long way toward determining whether he’s Michigan’s long-term answer at quarterback.
So, while in one respect Michigan will be trying to end the season on a high note and send its seniors out with a victory, the Wolverines will also be beginning their 2018 season, in a sense. And with a strong performance by Peters, the 2018 season would look a lot more promising.