Offensive lineman Taylor Lewan, who has been a key part of Michiganís transformation, may be playing in his final collegiate game. (John T. Greilick/Detroit News)
Tampa, Fla. It's trite and traditional to say the bowls don't matter as much, outside of the BCS biggies. Just be careful how and where you say it.
Motivation can get muddled this time of year, judging by spotty attendance and the occasional blowout. But don't tell Michigan and Brady Hoke the Outback Bowl isn't important. Don't tell Denard Robinson his final game doesn't mean something. Don't tell Steve Spurrier and South Carolina that another victory over a Big Ten power won't make a difference in his program's expanding image.
When Michigan (8-4) and South Carolina (10-2) meet today, it won't be about championships or rivalries. It'll be less about tangibles and more about perceptions. Michigan is trying to avoid a fifth loss that would turn a decent season into a disappointing one. South Carolina is trying to post back-to-back 11-victory marks for the first time in school history.
No need to overstate the importance of a bowl, but don't downplay it, either. Where do you think the Big Ten's battered reputation was born and nurtured? Primarily in disastrous bowl performances, often against the SEC.
Bowls are a review and a preview, and they matter for different reasons. For a player like junior tackle Taylor Lewan, it could be a farewell, and if it is, his pro stock might be affected by his performance against South Carolina mammoth star Jadeveon Clowney, who has 13 sacks.
Lewan won't confirm he's leaving, and is more interested in helping validate what Michigan has done the past two seasons, going 19-6.
"Some might say we're the class that helped bring Michigan back to what we were, being a winning program again," Lewan said. "The things we've done might not look as fancy to some people, but I wouldn't change it for the whole world."
Michigan isn't loaded with starry seniors, but they grinded through historic lows and emerged better for it. Robinson needs 86 yards to become college football's all-time leading rusher for a quarterback. Safety Jordan Kovacs went from walk-on to invaluable leader. Receiver Roy Roundtree went from big-play prospect to steadying influence.
What do you play for? Well, ask around.
Ask Michigan State how much that comeback against TCU mattered, as Mark Dantonio fervently pumped his arm following the 17-16 victory. The Spartans rallied behind the powerful Le'Veon Bell, and you know what it meant to him, as he mulls a jump to the pros.
You know what it means to unsung quarterback Connor Cook, who thrust himself into the mix for next year.
No, I don't believe bowl outcomes carry over to the following season, and Michigan can't erase the sting of losing to Ohio State and failing to win the Big Ten simply by beating South Carolina.
But perceptions and resolutions always can be altered on New Year's Day.
"The effort (in practice) has been really good, but I felt that way before we played Notre Dame and we turned the ball over six times," Hoke said. "This matters for our seniors, the guys that have given four or five years, have struggled, have had coaching changes and have stuck together."
It's a common theme in bowl season, and you can bet Robinson will be a major focus today. Devin Gardner has been terrific since taking over at quarterback, but Robinson probably will bounce from quarterback to tailback and maybe even to the end zone.
Against an outstanding South Carolina defense, Michigan will continue its metamorphosis from Robinson's dazzling sprints to Gardner's more-precise passing. And if the Wolverines truly are to return to power status, they need to run with someone other than their quarterback. When Robinson walks out that door, he takes a guaranteed 1,000-plus yards with him.
Gone for good
"The one thing you gotta have in today's football is a guy with some mobility, but not necessarily a 1,000-yard rushing quarterback, because our offense isn't going to be like that," offensive coordinator Al Borges said. "I don't think you can be like a statue back there. But as far as being featured as a runner like Denard was, I think those days are probably past."
While the Wolverines want to run like they once did, they likely will have to replace four offensive linemen, and have stockpiled and redshirted touted youngsters to step in. They also desperately need a tailback, with Fitzgerald Toussaint recovering from a severe leg injury.
Derrick Green, a 220-pounder from Virginia, is considered by some the No. 1 running back prospect in the country and has Michigan at the top of his list. For now, Hoke will choose among undersized senior Vincent Smith and untested Thomas Rawls and Justice Hayes.
Lots to prove and lots to improve. The Wolverines are still picking their way back to prosperity, and so are the Gamecocks. As always in bowls, this is about farewells and arrivals, and there will be plenty of both.