Michigan hopes brutal schedule hardened team for Outback Bowl
ANN ARBOR -- Notre Dame. Alabama. Ohio State.
The three finest teams in America, according to 60 Associated Press voters. A true murderer's row, with only one loss between them.
Michigan had a crack at each.
No. 19 Michigan (8-4) had a nice season, finishing second in the Legends Division -- the Big Ten's more difficult half -- and earning a bid to the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day.
But the season could have offered so much more if the Wolverines had beaten the best. They know that, and hope to redeem themselves in their final game against South Carolina (10-2), another premier team ranked No. 11th in the country.
"We just use it as motivation," senior defensive lineman Will Campbell said this week. "Look back at what we did wrong and try to prepare ourselves better.
"You could see it as a redemption game. We preach finish all the time, and that's what we need to do. That's what we didn't do."
Michigan was competitive in every game this season besides a lopsided 41-14 loss in the opener against Alabama (12-1).
It hung with Notre Dame (12-0) in South Bend, taking the Irish to the wire -- despite six turnovers -- before falling 13-6. Notre Dame went on to run the table and will play Alabama for the national title.
The Wolverines took a swing at Ohio State (12-0), too, and held a one-point halftime lead in Columbus before the offense stalled in the second half of a 26-21 defeat. The Buckeyes, like the Irish, went unbeaten.
Michigan's other loss came at No. 23 Nebraska (10-3), where it trailed by only four points and was driving for another score when quarterback Denard Robinson was knocked from the game. Russell Bellomy faltered as the backup, and the Wolverines fell 23-9 in Lincoln.
The Wolverines have showed they can hang. They haven't shown a great ability to finish, other than a 38-31 overtime win against No. 21 Northwestern.
They have one more opportunity to land that knockout blow.
"We know we can play with anybody, and that kind of shows that," Robinson said of the close calls. "We played against three teams that probably are in the top three in the country, and we know that we can play with anybody in the country.
"It gives us a boost to know we can play with anybody. Every time we step on the field, we can play with them. We just got to finish. We got to learn to finish games now.'
There were two major issues that prevented Michigan from finishing off those games -- and they could do the same against South Carolina, if not addressed.
First, turnovers. Michigan had just nine of them in its eight wins, but 16 in its four losses.
The Wolverines were 8-0 when committing fewer than three turnovers, but 0-4 when committing at least three.
Second, rushing the football. Michigan wants to do it, and did it in its wins, averaging 226.9 yards -- but averaged just 108.3 yards in its four losses.
The Alabama (69 yards), Nebraska (95) and Ohio State (108) games were the Wolverines' three worst rushing outputs of the season.
Michigan dropped four games this year, failing to live up to its preseason hype, but at least learned something about itself along the way and hopes those lessons pay off with an upset of South Carolina.
“I think there’s always a benefit (to playing a tough schedule)," coach Brady Hoke said. "When you play good football teams, whether you win or lose, you learn how you have to play. You learn that you have to do a better job taking care of the football. You have to run the football better. You have to get the ball back for your offense at the end of the game to give them the opportunity to score.
"Those are all the things you take out of the last game (against Ohio State) that we didn’t do.”