5 issues facing Michigan as it arrives in Florida
TAMPA, Fla. -- Michigan is nearly halfway through its prep for a bowl game it is expected to lose.
If it's to pull the upset, the Wolverines' heavy lifting begins when they arrive Sunday in Tampa for their New Year's Day matchup against No. 11 South Carolina (10-2) in the Outback Bowl.
No. 19 Michigan (8-4) will hold the eighth of 15 practices upon its arrival. It will work out again Monday at Bright House Field, the Philadelphia Phillies' spring training facility, before breaking Tuesday for Christmas.
A look at five issues that the Wolverines will look to address as they roll up their sleeves in Florida:
Muster some tailback production
Michigan's offense averaged 30 points per game, a respectable tally. But that's boosted by blowouts of lesser-thans such as Purdue, Illinois and Minesota, masking significant struggles against better defenses.
It was a good offense, but certainly not a consistent one, and perhaps the biggest culprit for that unevenness were the tailbacks, who had their worst season since at least 1936 (78.3 yards per game).
A steady tailback game -- like what Michigan had last year with Fitz Toussaint complementing Denard Robinson -- would help develop consistency, especially against an elite defense such as South Carolina's. The Gamecocks rank in the top 10 nationally in total defense, scoring defense, sacks and tackles for loss.
Devin Gardner has proven he can pass the ball, and that right now is Michigan's forte. But it's also just one dimension, and might not be enough against the Gamecocks.
Toussaint's disappointing season is over (leg injury). Thomas Rawls, Vincent Smith and Justice Hayes will fill in for him, along with Robinson, against South Carolina.
But it's not just on them. Michigan's offensive line has underachieved this year outside of All-America left tackle Taylor Lewan, and will be facing one of the nation's best defensive lines against South Carolina, a unit that is paced by All-American Jadeveon Clowney, the nation's best defensive end.
Michigan's pass defense ranked No. 2 in the country during the regular season, but J.T. Floyd's suspension offers a cascade of fallout as Michigan, already playing without Blake Countess (ACL), will be without its top two cornerbacks.
Raymon Taylor has filled in quite well for Countess, but could always take a back seat to the more experienced Floyd. Now, he won't have that crutch, and the sophomore will have to embrace his new role as Michigan's top corner.
Junior Courtney Avery now is expected to line up opposite Taylor. He struggled in a similar role earlier this year, when he was the first replacement for Countess, and lost that spot to Taylor.
He has no choice but to figure it out now, because there are no good options behind him.
Sophomore Deonte Hollowell or freshman Terry Richardson is expected to be the nickel back, Avery's old spot, with perhaps a bit of new freshman corner Dennis Norfleet mixed it. Those three combine for eight career appearances on defense.
Floyd's suspension precipitates a lot of movement, with several guys now filling unfamiliar roles. The Wolverines have eight more practices to work out the kinks and develop some chemistry.
Hone Devin-Denard offense
Denard Robinson's return to the field was a brilliant success, as he racked up a team-best 98 rushing yards against Iowa and Michigan scored on its first six possessions. He complemented the offense nicely, providing punch at tailback and quarterback.
He's also played a bit of receiver.
That success extended into the first half against Ohio State, as Michigan scored 21 more points and Robinson eclipsed 100 yards rushing. But then, it sputtered.
The combination was not used much in the second half against the Buckeyes, and the offense manged just 60 yards on 21 plays in the final two quarters -- and most disconcertingly, it was shut out.
Michigan will try to rediscover the two-quarterback magic that worked for its first six quarters.
Corral turnover issues
Michigan committed fewer than three turnovers in eight games this season -- and won each of them.
It committed at least three turnovers in four games -- and lost each of them.
Every coach preaches ball security, and Brady Hoke is no exception. It becomes a tired point at times. But for this team, it has meant the difference between winning and losing multiple times.
It lost by just seven points to No. 1 Notre Dame, despite a comedy of turnovers. (Six, but who's counting?) Three second-half turnovers against Ohio State prevented Michigan from developing a rhythm, and it lost a lead and the game because of it.
The Wolverines are great defensively, but the offense won't get many chances to score against an athletic and imposing South Carolina defense. They can't afford to squander scoring opportunities, possessions and field position.
Tune out distractions
Bowls are all about distractions, with trips all over town, and photograph sessions at children's hospitals, and glad-handing at bowl functions -- and don't forget the beach and sun.
A lot happens when a team takes more than a month off.
For Michigan, that's especially true after it lost three players to suspension.
The Wolverines need to find a way to tune out the noise while in Florida and get back to work. Otherwise, it will end the season with consecutive losses.
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