College football fans who love a ground-and-pound game filled with defensive plays are in for a rare treat when the Auburn Tigers collide with the No. 14 Northwestern Wildcats on Friday in the Vrbo Citrus Bowl. The pairing of the SEC versus the Big Ten teams is only the second time the two storied programs have met on the gridiron.
In the roughly two-and-a-half weeks since Auburn (6-4) last took the field, everything has changed on The Plains. Head coach Gus Malzahn was given a pink slip after a 24-10 road win against Mississippi State on Dec. 12. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has taken over as interim head coach putting the offense in first-year coordinator Chad Morris' hands. How Steele may direct Morris' hand and how Morris may direct the offense without Malzahn's input (or degree of control) adds intrigue to how Auburn will look in Orlando.
Everything is cruising forward nice and steady for head coach Pat Fitzgerald in his 15th season with the Wildcats. Northwestern (6-2) has been in and out of the AP Top 25 over the last nine years but hit a rough patch in 2019, finishing 3-9 just a year after winning the Big Ten West title. But Fitzgerald's team bounced back losing just once in the regular season to claim a second division title in three years before falling 22-10 to No. 4 Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game. Now, the Wildcats will try and finish the season with their fourth straight bowl win.
Vrbo Citrus Bowl: Auburn (6-4) vs. No. 14 Northwestern (6-2)
Kickoff: Friday, Jan. 1 at 1 p.m.
Where: Camping World Stadium (Orlando, Fla.)
Spread: Northwestern -3.5
When Auburn Has the Ball
The entire offense for the Tigers runs through dual-threat quarterback Bo Nix. The sophomore finished the regular season fifth in the SEC in passing yards (2,123) and second on his team in rushing yards (356). He also has a team-high seven rushing touchdowns. Although Nix has been steady in the pocket producing yards with his arm, the vertical offense is not there. With everything contained, defenses have been able to pick up on the passing tendencies, as Nix has 11 touchdown passes compared to seven interceptions. And with Anthony Schwartz (team-high 54 receptions) opting out of the bowl game, Nix must try and solve Northwestern's defense without one of his top targets. In Schwartz's absence, Seth Williams (42 rec., 688 yds., 4 TDs) and Eli Stove (40, 330, 3) figure to see more looks.
One of the bright spots on offense for Auburn this season has been the ascension of freshman running back Tank Bigsby. Fifth in the SEC in rushing with 834 yards, Bigsby has the talent to be that next great Auburn tailback. However, there's some uncertainty regarding his status as there have been reports that he may leave the program following Gus Malzahn's dismissal. If Bigsby doesn't play, Shaun Shivers and D.J. Williams, who have combined for 444 yards and three touchdowns on 85 carries, will likely share the workload.
Northwestern enters this game ranked in the top 25 nationally in three of the four major defensive categories. Fifth in scoring (15.5 ppg), the Wildcats have not allowed a 300-yard passing game and until Ohio State gashed them for 399 yards in the Big Ten Championship Game, they had given up more than 195 rushing yards one other time (224 vs. Nebraska). Northwestern held Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields to 12-for-27 passing for 114 yards and two interceptions, but it was Trey Sermon who did the damage in Indianapolis, going for a record-setting 331 yards (with two touchdowns) on 29 carries.
When Northwestern Has the Ball
With a new offensive coordinator (Mike Bajakian) and quarterback (Peyton Ramsey), the Wildcats enter this game 11th in the Big Ten in both scoring (23.4 ppg) and total (348.6 ypg) offense. That's better production compared to last year (16. 3, 297.1), but this is far from a prolific attack.
The Wildcats are about as balanced as it gets in the modern era of offense, rushing for 162.4 and passing for 186.3 yards per game. Northwestern has spread the work on the ground around, as five different skill position players have logged 23 or more carries. Drake Anderson leads the way with 256 yards on 62 attempts (4.1 ypc) while Cam Porter is second in yards (235) and has a team-high four rushing touchdowns. Isaiah Bowser (team-high 78 att.), Evan Hull (8.8 ypc), and Kyric McGowan (wide receiver who is averaging 5.9 ypc) also figure to get their opportunities.
Ramsey is completing 60 percent of his passes with nearly as many touchdowns (nine) as interceptions (eight). His leading receiver, Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, has 38 catches and four touchdowns on the season. Ramsey also brings a little bit of a dual-threat element with him, as he's rushed for 197 yards and two scores. The offensive line has done a decent job, giving up 12 sacks in eight games.
For Auburn, the Tigers' pass defense has been pretty solid this season, especially when you consider the competition. Auburn ranks third in the SEC at 237.8 passing yards per game allowed, with only three teams (Arkansas, LSU, Alabama) throwing for more than 300. There were more issues against the run with Georgia, Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Texas A&M all gaining more than 200 yards on the ground, but overall the Tigers are seventh in the conference (163.1 ypg) in that department. The defense won't be at full strength on Friday, however. Defensive backs Christian Tutt and Jamien Sherwood have reportedly opted out from playing in the bowl game.
Bowl games are not always about which team has the most talent, but about which team wants it more. With Auburn already in transition on the sidelines, will they show up looking to impress new head coach Bryan Harsin (previously at Boise State)? On the other side, focus or effort has never been an issue for Northwestern under Pat Fitzgerald.
The Tigers went 2-5 in bowl games during Gus Malzahn's tenure while the Wildcats have won three in a row. Auburn has more individual talent, but Northwestern is a better team. The Wildcats draw even with the Tigers, avenging a 38-35 Outback Bowl loss on New Year's Day 2010.
Prediction: Northwestern 24, Auburn 17
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— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.