2010 Outback Bowl Preview
Northwestern (8-4, 5-3 Big Ten) vs. Auburn (7-5, 3-5; SEC)
January 1st, 2010 @ 11:00 AM (EST) – ESPN – Tampa Bay, Florida
Originally known as the Hall of Fame Bowl, the Outback Bowl was rechristened in 1994 and has become the salve for every fan hung over from New Year’s Eve revelry with its 11 AM kickoff. Since 1995, this game has matched the Big Ten against the SEC and the SEC holds a narrow 8-6 edge.
Northwestern continued their solid performance under Pat Fitzgerald, finishing bowl eligible for the 3rd consecutive season and earning their 2nd straight bowl berth. Fitzgerald took over as the youngest head coach in NCAA football in 2006 after the tragic passing of Randy Walker and his teams have improved in every season to produce a record of 27-22 in the last four years. Northwestern finished their season on a 4-1 run that included victories over highly ranked Iowa and Wisconsin teams.
The Wildcats employ a spread attack on offense and their season output was nothing special, scoring 25.2 points per game to finish 78th in the country. Northwestern was a paltry 95th in rushing and quarterback Mike Kafka had (by far) the most carries. However, Kafka was extremely adept at running their passing offense and led the ‘Cats to a 29th place finish as he threw for 2,900 yards and 12 touchdowns.
But Northwestern’s real strength in 2009 was their defense, which allowed only 23.3 points per game to finish 47th in the country. The Cats were 35th against the run but they struggled at 68 th against the pass. However, Northwestern was superior at takeaways, forcing 26 turnovers to finish 20th in the country. Another solid showing was in the pass rush, where their 26th sacks were tied for 44th nationally. The Wildcats are a solid and opportunistic defense that features future high NFL pick Corey Wootton on the defensive line.
Auburn returns to postseason action in Gene Chizik’s first season in charge on the Plains. A controversial hire, Chizik’s team jumped out to a solid 5-0 start and quieted his critics. However, the Tigers stumbled down the stretch, only beating one D-1A team en route to a 2-5 end to the season. This will be Chizik’s first time preparing a team for a bowl game (his Iowa State teams were a combined for a 5-19 record in his two seasons) and the Tigers will look to rebound from a poor close.
Auburn’s offense was very productive in 2009, finishing 20th in scoring at 32.9 points per game. The Tigers averaged 214 yards per game on the ground to finish 13th in rushing and they were solid through the air with a 56th national rank. The Tigers’ best player is tailback Ben Tate, who ran for 1,254 yards and 8 touchdowns. However, they fell off in the second half of the year: In their 5 game winning streak to start the year they scored 41.4 points per game but fell down to a 26.8 average during their closing run! That included a 63 point outing against a D-1AA team, so clearly they have some work to do during bowl preparation.
Despite Chizik’s defensive background, the Tigers struggled this year as they allowed 26.8 points per game to finish 73rd in the country. Auburn stunk against the run at 80th but were much better against the pass at 29th. However, that stat is deceiving because teams ran the ball 55 percent of the time against the Tigers, so clearly they had success on the ground. With only 19 turnovers, Auburn was only 75th in the country and this defense is clearly in need of some work.
The build up to this game has been confusing to this writer because people are overwhelmingly picking Auburn to win. The Tigers are the huge favorite despite their 2-5 closing stretch (Northwestern closed 6-2), their offensive fall-off during that run and their defensive issues all season. Perhaps the Tigers have more name value than Northwestern or perhaps the Tigers are favored because of the current ESPN lovefest with the SEC, but it seems that people aren’t looking very closely at this game in picking the Tigers to win big. You can bet that Northwestern is going to feed off of the country’s lack of respect.
Northwestern is superior defensively, especially at forcing turnovers, and their turnover margin is significantly stronger than the Tigers. They also match up well against Auburn’s run game. Northwestern has the better quarterback in Mike Kafka, who is a multidimensional danger that accounted for nearly 3,300 yards and 19 touchdowns. The Wildcats certainly have a coaching advantage as Pat Fitzgerald’s teams are always ready to play and people forget that the Wildcats nearly upset heavy favorite Missouri in last year’s Alamo Bowl, losing in overtime despite being a double digit underdog.
Finally, the Wildcats were simply the superior team down the stretch. Northwestern ended Iowa’s undefeated season and upset #14 Wisconsin to close out the year while Auburn went 1-5 against D-1A opponents since an early October win at Tennessee. Expect Northwestern to be the better prepared team and win their first bowl game in sixty years.
Outback Bowl Pick: Northwestern 27, Auburn 17
by Matt Baxendell
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