ANN ARBOR, Mich. – It's been more than a month since the Michigan football team finished its season against Ohio State, and the Outback Bowl is quickly approaching.
The Wolverines finished the season at an underwhelming 8-4 and will play South Carolina in a solid, but unspectacular bowl game. After 20 total wins and appearances in the Citrus and Orange bowls during Jim Harbaugh's first two seasons, 2017 was a minor step in the opposite direction.
But the bowl game is far from meaningless for a team that replaced 18 starters and figures to be among the favorites in the Big Ten East next year. The bowl season is a chance for teams to enter the offseason on a high note and build for the future.
Monday is an especially important opportunity for quarterback Brandon Peters, who will have the stage to himself one final time before the offseason.
Michigan's quarterback depth
One of the greatest weaknesses on Michigan's roster this season was at quarterback, as last year's starter, Wilton Speight, took a step back and John O'Korn struggled with turnovers.
Quarterback is the most important position on the field, and Michigan's struggles there overshadowed the strides made on defense and in the running game.
But help is on the way. Freshman Dylan McCaffrey will enter the conversation this offseason after redshirting this year to build strength and learn the system. McCaffrey was one of the top prospects in last season's recruiting class and has all the tools to compete for the starting spot.
Harbaugh also landed former No. 1 quarterback recruit and Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson, who might be eligible to play during the 2018 season. Patterson was the No. 4 overall prospect in the 2016 class and threw for 3,139 yards, 23 touchdowns and 12 picks in 10 games at Ole Miss.
True freshmen Joe Milton and Kevin Doyle will also join the team. Milton is the No. 8 pro-style quarterback in the class, while Doyle is the No. 23 pro-style quarterback. Both are promising prospects for the future, but they are likely to redshirt next year due to the depth at the position.
Taking care of the ball
Harbaugh was hesitant to go to Peters as the starter, even when it was clear Speight and O'Korn couldn't get the job done. Only when Speight went down with an injury and O'Korn struggled in three straight games did Harbaugh make the move.
Peters finally got the nod midway through Michigan's game against Rutgers. He completed 10 of his 14 passing attempts for 124 yards and a touchdown.
Over the next three games, as the undisputed starter, Peters did a solid job managing the offense. He completed 26 of 49 passes for 358 yards and three touchdowns. On the season, he completed 57.8 percent of his passes for 486 yards and four touchdowns.
Most importantly, Peters hasn't thrown an interception in his college career. In 237 pass attempts, O'Korn and Speight combined to throw eight interceptions, or one about every 30 passes. Peters threw 64 passes without a pick.
Can Peters be explosive?
While Peters was clearly the best available option on Michigan's roster this season, the question remains whether or not he can be a true weapon in the passing game.
The coaching staff was extremely conservative with Peters this year, as he attempted fewer than 16 passes per game during his four-game stretch as the top quarterback. He never eclipsed 160 passing yards in a game, even during Michigan's three-game streak of scoring more than 30 points.
Patterson is a stark contrast to that type of offensive style. He played 10 games at Ole Miss and averaged exactly 313.9 yards per game. Peters averaged 120.5 yards per game when he was the primary quarterback.
It's not that Peters doesn't have elite talent. He was the No. 6 pro-style quarterback in the 2016 class and the No. 61 overall player. He showed off his excellent arm strength at times during the season, and he has the tools to be a prolific passer.
Michigan's bowl game is the perfect chance for Peters to showcase some of that arm talent. He's had a month to prepare for South Carolina after recovering from what appeared to be a serious injury in Wisconsin.
Again, this will be Peters' last solo audition for next year's starting spot. When offseason practice begins, the reps and the attention of coaches will be split between Peters, Patterson, McCaffrey and the two true freshmen.
Head start in the QB competition
Regardless of how talented McCaffrey is, or how explosive Patterson can be, Peters has distinct advantages heading into the offseason quarterback battle.
The most obvious advantage is his growing familiarity in the offense. Harbaugh runs a complex offensive system, and it takes time for young players to get comfortable, especially the starting quarterback.
Peters has been in the system for two years. He spent valuable time learning behind Speight, and even more valuable time during in-game action. No matter how much Patterson studies the playbook, he can't replicate the experience Peters has built up since arriving in Ann Arbor.
There's also a budding chemistry between Peters and several of his targets in the passing game, all of whom should be back next season. Sean McKeon and Zach Gentry were his favorite targets, as the two young tight ends caught 14 passes during the four-game stretch.
Donovan Peoples-Jones is also an important target for Peters, as he's the most talented offensive weapon on the roster. Though he only caught 16 passes for 219 yards as a true freshman, Peoples-Jones is Michigan's best big-play threat, and can haul in any pass within reach. His route-running skills need to improve for him to take the next step, however.
Look for Peters to strengthen his connections with those targets in the bowl game. After 15 practices as the starting quarterback this month, Peters should have a good feel for the offensive game plan heading into New Year's Day.
How much does one bowl game mean?
No matter what Peters does against South Carolina, he can't win or lose the quarterback competition before the offseason begins.
It is an immensely important game for him, however, as it will set the tone for his offseason. Confidence is a huge factor in college sports, and Peters can either spend the next eight months thinking about how well he played in the Outback Bowl, or agonizing over a missed opportunity.
For Michigan football as a program, the outcome of the Outback Bowl isn't massively important. Whether the team finishes 9-4 or 8-5, it will be remembered as a decent but underwhelming year, and expectations will be high for 2018.
But for Peters, this is a huge game, no matter what the other quarterbacks do. Even though 2017 isn't over, the 2018 quarterback competition has already begun.