As we ring in 2010, the Auburn Tigers and Northwestern Wildcats will christen the occasion with the first college football game of the New Year. The Outback Bowl, which many considered to be a steal for both the Tigers and Cats, kicks off at 10 AM on New Year’s Day.
Auburn and Northwestern both had good seasons, with Northwestern grabbing one more win than their SEC foe. Auburn started off hot with a record of 5-0 and an appearance in the Top 25, but dropped five of their next seven games.
Many know this was due to a lack of depth and inexperience, yet the Tigers handled the adversity well enough to earn a New Year’s Day bowl. They saw late leads slip away to Kentucky and Georgia, and were clipped by national championship bound Alabama in the last minute of the Iron Bowl.
The Tigers showed that they are on the right path all season, with the offense performing at an unbelievable pace compared to years past.
The defense looked very susceptible at times, but if you caught a glimpse of the Iron Bowl, you know with a little depth, Auburn’s defense has a chance to be the defense Tiger fans are accustomed to.
Auburn held Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram to his worst game of the year, where he totaled 30 yards and was virtually useless to the Tide. However, as great teams do, Nick Saban’s bunch found a way to string together one final drive to clip the Tigers.
Northwestern started and finished much differently than the Tigers. The Wildcats found themselves sitting at 2-2 after two conference losses at the hands of Syracuse and Minnesota.
These were definitely two opponents Northwestern was capable of beating, and at the end of the season, there was no doubt about that.
While finishing at 8-4, Northwestern completed a mad tear of three surprising victories over Big Ten powers Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin, whom many thought would claim the Outback Bowl spot.
With that decisive victory, Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcat team snagged a surprising bowl berth.
While it may have come as a surprise, Northwestern earned the Outback Bowl, and deserved it with the way they finished the season.
While Auburn struggled in the latter part of the season, the way the Tigers performed against Alabama, coupled with the way the fan base rallied around the team after the devastating loss showed the Outback Bowl committee this team was more than just your average football team.
“When we heard of the Auburn fans chanting at the end of the Iron Bowl “It’s great to be an Auburn Tiger” we knew there was something special about the excitement around this football team,” said Jim McVay, Outback Bowl President and CEO.
Tiger fans responded by buying up tickets at an incredible rate and surpassing the University’s allotted amount by selling over 13,000 tickets.
The game is sure to be a treat for both teams, with two exciting offenses taking the field. Both teams feature senior battle-tested quarterbacks in Auburn’s Chris Todd, and Northwestern’s Mike Kafka.
What Auburn features that Northwestern doesn’t is a running attack. Ben Tate has been a workhorse for the Tigers all season long, and many expect him to set the pace against Northwestern.
If the Wildcats want to crowd the line, then Chris Todd has an array of receivers to throw to, with Darvin Adams being his main target. Adams was one of the SEC’s top playmakers this season, leading the league in touchdown receptions.
Northwestern doesn’t have a single rusher with over 300 yards total, which is surprising considering many thought of Kafka as a runner before this season.
It hasn’t seemed to affect the Wildcats, since Kafka has been one of the most accurate passers in the country all year, and tops in the Big Ten.
They look to spread the entire field, and often show a no back attack and formations that the Tigers have not seen this season.
Auburn’s secondary has been below average at times this year, and this would be one way that the Northwestern could punish the Tigers. Auburn’s corners can become much too aggressive, leaving the deep ball as a viable option.
Zeke Markshausen, one of the best of the best possession receivers in the Big Ten is Kafka’s main target, and it will be interesting to see how Auburn tries to slow him down.
It’s often said that teams can’t be one dimensional, but Northwestern has found ways to get it done all season. They have an array of talent that can run the ball, including Kafka.
They obviously don’t have a workhorse like Tate, but if they do need to run the ball, you can trust that it’ll be spread amongst several Cats.
Both defenses are merely average, meaning both spread attacks could cause problems for one another.
Auburn hasn’t faced a Big Ten opponent this year, and likewise for Northwestern, so it will be interesting to see how they match up with one another. Obviously many consider the SEC superior to the Big Ten, but in bowl games, that doesn’t always mean anything at all.
Who wins you ask? Many pundits have picked Auburn, and many have picked Northwestern. This game will come down to one thing, and it could either change the game or win the game for either team. That would be Special teams.
Auburn has had trouble fielding punts all year, no matter who the opponent. Luckily for Auburn, Northwestern is one of the worst punting teams in all of college football.
This could spell disaster for someone. Only time will tell.
Auburn’s offense should be too much for Northwestern, with rumors that Auburn OC Gus Malzahn has added even more wrinkles to his unconventional attack.
Northwestern may be able to pass the ball on Auburn, but at some point, they will have to take it to the ground. Will the Tigers expect this and be able to stop something they may not have planned for? With the lack of depth, that could be something to watch.
However, can Northwestern protect their signal-caller? Antonio Coleman and Antoine Carter will look to feast on Kafka and the Wildcat O-line that averages almost 2.5 sacks allowed per game.
If they can find away to keep Kafka on his feet, then the Cats will give the Tigers all they can handle. It just won’t be quite enough.
When it’s all said and done, look for the SEC to prevail once again.