Northwestern (8-4, 5-3) will play on New Year's Day for just the fourth time in school history as the Wildcats travel to Tampa Bay, Florida to face off against the Auburn Tigers (7-5, 3-5) in the Outback Bowl.
Yes, the same Outback Bowl that has snubbed Northwestern twice this decade (2000 and 2008). But thanks to some intense campaigning from Athletic Director Jim Phillips, the BCS decided to select the Wildcats over Wisconsin, who ended the year at 9-3 with their big win over Hawaii.
The Outback Bowl, the first college football game of the new decade, presents an intriguing matchup of offenses that can put up some big numbers and defenses that can take care of business when necessary.
Don't let Auburn's record fool you, though. The Tigers' five losses all came against Bowl-bound SEC teams, and their most recent loss to No. 1 Alabama on November 27 was a five-point defeat in a game where the Tigers led most of the way.
Despite the fact that Northwestern is an underdog in this game, the 'Cats are playing their best football of the season, having beaten two nationally-ranked squads in the last three games. They are ending the regular season by winning four of their final five contests.
The defense has come on strong, helping put away NU's last three opponents, while the offense has shown the ability to move the ball, particularly in their most recent 33-point showing against a stout Wisconsin defense.
This should set up an offensive battle—much like what was expected from Northwestern's appearance in the Alamo Bowl last season. Although with the long layoff until the big game, that could very well fail to happen again.
The national media has already begun writing off the Wildcats. But it should be more of a mature team that learned its lesson from that game against Missouri last year where NU led most of the way and fought until falling in overtime. Expect a close, hard-fought battle again this January, and count out Northwestern at your own risk.
There are many underlying story lines despite the fact that Northwestern and Auburn have never played on the gridiron.
Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof was the coach at Duke when the Blue Devils beat the 'Cats in Evanston in 2007—his last win there as head coach. He was also DC last season for Minnesota where he watched Wildcats' QB Mike Kafka torch the Gophers with his feet. Northwestern took the game and started a five-game Minnesota slide that ended in Roof's dismissal.
Auburn will be returning to the Bowl scene after missing out on the festivities with a 5-7 record last year for the first time in eight seasons.
Northwestern, meanwhile, is headed to consecutive bowl games for just the second time in school history. The program will be looking to earn just the second Bowl win in school history and the first since the 1949 Rose Bowl.
Northwestern's all-time Bowl record is 1-6, while Auburn's is 19-13-2. The Cats have never appeared in the Outback Bowl, while Auburn sports a 1-1 record in the game, returning to Tampa Bay in Bowl season for the first time since 1996.
Although there are few links between the two teams in this game, both will be looking to establish solid footing entering the new decade, and both coaching staffs will have their teams prepared to do battle early in the morning on Jan. 1.
So, get ready for what should be a great start to the most enchanted day on the college football calendar.
Opening Line: Auburn by 8.
Who Should Win: It's a toss-up.
Yes, the opening line reads the Tigers by more than a touchdown, and you know what all the pundits have said about this game: Auburn is in the SEC and has way too much talent and speed, while Northwestern is in for a beatdown after a nice season in the Big 10.
But Northwestern is playing its best football of the season on both sides of the ball, and the Tigers have shown some vulnerability against a strong passing attack—evident by the 44 points Arkansas put up on their defense.
This looks to be a rather evenly-matched game.
In an evenly-matched game there should be no upset factor, but if the Wildcats even keep this one close, many will consider it an upset like the Alamo Bowl a year ago.
The Wildcats will need to play solid defense, particularly against the run and a varied and effective offensive attack designed by Gus Malzahn.
Expect this game to come down to just a couple of plays, and whichever team gets those plays to go in their favor will come out as the victor.
What To Look For: Northwestern Offense against Auburn Defense
As Northwestern fans saw in the 'Cats' season finale against Wisconsin, the offense can be effective despite lacking a strong ground game.
Kafka was spot-on as he led the ''Cats to a 27-point first-half performance and a big reason for that output was that he protected the football. In fact, Kafka hasn't thrown an interception since the Indiana game on Oct. 24.
When Jan. 1 rolls around, that makes 68 calendar days since his last INT. That trend must continue for NU to taste victory in this game.
The Wildcats' ground game hasn't been great, but with Kafka's performances, it hasn't really needed to be. Expect more running back by committee from the nation's 93rd-ranked rushing offense.
More importantly, look out for that short passing game that has effectively replaced NU's rushing game: The Wildcats rank 29th nationally, averaging 266.1 yards per game through the air.
One mostly overlooked area of Northwestern has been the offensive line, which has performed admirably over the last portion of the season allowing just five sacks over the last three games—pretty good considering there were 105 pass attempts in those three games and Kafka was sporting a lingering hamstring injury that hampered his mobility.
On the other side of the ball, Auburn basically falls in the same category as Northwestern does on defense: not great, but good enough to win.
They rank 51st nationally in total defense, giving up 353.5 yards per game, but are 73rd nationally in scoring defense with 26.9 points allowed per game.
The Tigers' best area is their pass defense, which ranks 27th nationally in pass efficiency defense and gives up just 191.8 yards per game through the air—28th in the country. It presents an interesting matchup with the Wildcats' solid passing attack.
We will also have to see if Northwestern tries to run the ball more often, since Auburn's run defense ranks 80th nationally, giving up 161.7 yards per game and a relatively high 4.3 yards per carry on the ground. As mentioned earlier, NU has mostly avoided the run, but this presents the opportunity to get something going.
However, Roof has faced the 'Cats in each of the last two seasons as a coach for Minnesota and Duke. In 2007, Duke was able to hold NU to just 14 points thanks to multiple failed drives in the red zone by the Cats, although in 2008 he wasn't as fortunate as Kafka ran wild against his defense. It will be intriguing to see how he approaches the NU offense, and vice versa.
Guys to look out for on defense are DE Antonio Coleman, who leads the Tigers with nine sacks this year, and team tackle leader LB Josh Bynes. CB Walt McFadden leads the team with four interceptions this year and is tied for the lead with eight pass break-ups.
Although there aren't a ton of household names, the defense is quick and solid, having held Alabama to just 26 points, something that Florida could not replicate in the SEC title game. (Florida had the nation's No. 1 defense heading into the game.)
What To Look for: Northwestern Defense against Auburn Offense
The Northwestern defense will have its hands full against an Auburn offense designed by Gus Malzahn, who employs a spread offense but also likes to use the run. He invented the "Wildcat" as the offensive coordinator at Arkansas a few years back.
The Tigers rank 13th nationally with an impressive 213.8 yards per game on the ground and average 5.0 yards per carry.
Senior RB Ben Tate leads the way with 1,254 rushing yards on the season and eight touchdowns on the ground. True freshman Onterio McCalebb has also proven to be effective, adding 547 yards and four scores this season.
They are both averaging over four yards per carry. As a comparison, no Northwestern player with double digit carries this year is averaging over four yards per carry.
And that's just the ground game.
Malzahn loves the spread offense along with many other formations, and his senior QB Chris Todd has put together an extremely solid season with a 146.5 pass efficiency—good for 23rd nationally. Despite not posting huge yardage numbers, he has thrown 21 touchdowns to just six interceptions.
Auburn loves to spread it around, but sophomore Darvin Adams is the favorite target of Tate as he leads the team in receptions (48), receiving yards (855), and receiving touchdowns (10). Look for the Wildcats to put senior CB Sherrick McManis on him in an attempt to contain their most dangerous receiver.
The 'Cats have been rather successful against the run over the second half of the season, and on the year have yielded just 123.5 yards per game, which would be a school record if the season ended today. (Last year's 126.4 yards per game set the Northwestern record.) This effort must continue in order to shut down the key cog in Auburn's offensive attack.
Also defensively, look for DE Corey Wootton to lay it all on the line in his last collegiate game. He has racked up four sacks in NU's last five games and is looking like his old self after that knee injury sustained in the Alamo Bowl last year.
The rotation of Adam Hahn, Corbin Bryant, and Marshall Thomas in the middle has been effective at containing opponents' run games as well.
Also look out for the senior leadership in the secondary to step up in this one: Brad Phillips, McManis, and Brendan Smith will be playing in their last game for Northwestern and will need to have solid games to slow down Auburn and give the Cats a chance to win.
It will be great to have Smith back on the field after he missed the last portion of the regular season with a hand injury. They'll have a chance to show why they make up what may be NU's best secondary since the mid-1990s.
What To Look for: Special Teams
In a close game, special teams can make a big difference.
Northwestern has experienced big swings over the last two games of its regular season in that category.
Against Illinois, K Stefan Demos missed all three of his field goal attempts—after missing two kicks off blocks—only to turn around and nail all four against Wisconsin. All 12 points Demos provided proved vital in the Cats' two-point victory.
Demos is 18-of-23 on the year in the field goal department and 31-of-32 on XPs, putting him on the doorstep of some NU field goal records. Auburn's kicking has been just as solid with K Wes Byrum going 14-of-15 on field goals and a perfect 49-of-49 on XPs.
And Northwestern's punt coverage team, which yielded just 6.3 yards per return on 16 returns this year, allowed a 68-yard punt return TD against Wisconsin that helped the Badgers get back in the game.
Both teams are poor in the punt return category (NU ranks 90th nationally, Auburn is 113th), but the Tigers have been respectable on kick returns (30th nationally, helped by a 99 yard return for TD earlier in the year). Don't forget Stephen Simmons, though, who's averaging 25.8 yards per kick return and ran back a couple of long ones against Wisconsin.
Auburn does present a chance for NU to get the return game going, ranking 113th in punt return defense and 98th in kick return defense. The 'Cats could really use some positive offensive starting position after seeing poor returns for most of the year, so hopefully this is where the tide turns.
The 'Cats, meanwhile, are a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of coverage units, which isn't a bad thing. Despite giving up a TD on a kickoff and punt, NU ranks 49th and 73rd, respectively, in those categories.
There are definitely opportunities for both teams to do something in special teams, and don't be surprised to see a big run-back at some point that helps determine the winner of this game.
Third Down Conversions
Northwestern ended the regular season with the second-most conversions in the country (95, second only to Georgia Tech, who finished with 100 with one additional game), and placed 10th in conversion percentage (48.0 percent).
Auburn, meanwhile, is right in the middle of the pack at 52nd nationally, converting 40.9 percent of their third downs.
On the other side of the ball, both Northwestern and Auburn do well at stopping teams on third down, ranking 25th and 21st, respectively, with both allowing a conversion rate under 35 percent.
After staring the year in the red, NU is up to a +0.42 turnover margin per game; Auburn has a zero-turnover margin on the year.
As one would imagine, the turnover margin had a huge impact on each team's results in any given game. Both teams were undefeated when winning the turnover battle: NU was 6-0, Auburn was 4-0.
Neither team fared well when losing the turnover battle: The Cats were 2-4, while Auburn was 1-5 (their one win was over I-AA/FCS Furman).
Note that Auburn was 2-0 when tying the opponent in turnovers (both were out of conference games against non-BCS conference teams).
Scoring by Quarters
Auburn has owned the first and third quarters, outscoring opponents by a combined 217-148 in those periods. But in the fourth, they have been outscored 80-94.
Northwestern, meanwhile, has been outscored in every period but the second, where the Cats own a commanding 143-69 edge.
RB Alex Daniel (ankle, out for season).
Expect that everyone else, including S Brendan Smith, makes it back on the field for the 2009 season finale. The official injury report will be released during the week leading up to the game, but expect the Wildcats to spend most of the month healing and getting those injured players ready to go.
LB Eltoro Freeman (concussion, questionable), S Zac Etheridge (neck, out for season).
Like Northwestern, Auburn expects to be close to full health minus a couple of more serious injuries come Jan. 1. Don't expect previously sustained injuries to play a big role in this game due to the long layoff.
Prediction: Northwestern 30, Auburn 28
That's right, I'm going to go ahead and predict something that hasn't happened in 61 years: a Wildcat Bowl victory.
Yes, Northwestern's defense will yield yards and points, but they have proven time after time that they can slow down the opponent just enough for NU to win. Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz will have his defense prepared, and he'll finally have them at full strength, which will go a long way in itself.
On offense, look for Kafka to have a going away party much like CJ Bacher's one year ago. Auburn has a good but not great defense, and the 'Cats have been successful over their past three games despite facing some stout defensive fronts and fielding an injured QB. Kafka will be healthy and ready to go out on top.
This is the No. 1 goal that Coach Pat Fitzgerald has had in mind since taking over at Northwestern: win a Bowl game.
Now the opportunity is there, and he and the team are already preparing as much as possible to make good on that goal.
As shown in last year's Alamo Bowl, this team is dangerous when it is focused, no matter how much of an underdog they are tabbed as by the media. This year they'll finally achieve the bowl victory that has eluded Northwestern for so long.