The beauty of college football is the unknown is what usually happens and the team with the most talent does not always walk away the victor, especially in the postseason. With that in mind, the upstart No. 16 Minnesota Golden Gophers (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten) head to Tampa on Jan. 1 to take on the No. 12 Auburn Tigers (9-3, 5-3 SEC) in a Power 5 showdown in the Outback Bowl that holds intrigue for fans across the nation.
Minnesota fans have not experienced a season like this in 16 years. The last time the Gophers reached the 10-win mark was in 2003, hitting double digits in a thrilling, 31-30 Sun Bowl victory over Oregon. This season, Minnesota took another step forward under the guidance of third-year head coach P.J. Fleck, challenging for the Big Ten West title down to the wire and knocking off then-No. 4 Penn State at home along the way. The Gophers got after teams this season with a high-powered offense that marches up and down the field for 427 yards and 34 points per game.
While Minnesota played a few tough teams this season, its schedule during the regular season ranked 61st of 130 FBS teams. Auburn's slate came in at second as the Tigers faced six teams in AP top 20 and four in the top 10. The War Eagles' path to the Outback Bowl was led by a stingy defense that ranked 19th nationally at 324 yards per game allowed. That side of the ball will need to lead the way again on Wednesday to help head coach Gus Malzahn reach the 10-win plateau for the third time during his seven-year tenure on The Plains.
Outback Bowl: Minnesota vs. Auburn
Kickoff: Wednesday, Jan. 1 at 1 p.m. ET
Where: Raymond James Stadium (Tampa Bay, Fla.)
Spread: Auburn -7
When Minnesota Has the Ball
While Justin Fields (Ohio State) and Shea Patterson (Michigan) get the Big Ten headlines when it comes to the quarterback position, Tanner Morgan is the one leading the conference in passing yards (2,975). Morgan is accurate (66 percent completion rate) with 28 touchdowns and just six interceptions. In big games, Morgan has risen to the occasion. He poured it on Purdue for a season-high 396 yards with four touchdowns and clipped Penn State for 339 yards, Iowa for 368, and Wisconsin for 296.
When Morgan throws, he’s looking for either Rashod Bateman or Tyler Johnson. The top two targets in the Big Ten, the duo combined for 131 receptions, 2,284 yards, and 22 touchdowns in the regular season. Auburn checks in at 40th nationally in passing defense (208 ypg), but struggled against LSU’s own dynamic duo of Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson, who combined for 15 catches and 183 yards when the teams met in late October, a 23-20 win by the eventual SEC champs.
The Gophers may lean towards the pass but they have a productive running game, led by Rodney Smith. One of just three in the Big Ten to surpass 1,000 rushing yards in the regular season (1,094), Smith averages 5.2 yards per carry and has eight touchdowns on the ground. As a team, Minnesota had 24 rushing touchdowns in 12 games compared to 28 through the air.
But Smith and the other Gopher ball carriers may have trouble finding running room on New Year’s Day against an Auburn defense that’s giving up 116 rushing yards per game. The Tigers’ defensive line is anchored by All-SEC first-team selections Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson with second-team honoree K.J. Britt cleaning anything up in the box from his linebacker spot. Auburn’s safeties are as active as any in the nation with Jeremiah Dinson’s 79 tackles leading the team and Daniel Thomas close behind (68). If the Tigers take the run away from Minnesota’s game plan that will allow Davidson and others more chances to put pressure on Morgan.
Offensive approach aside, the Gophers do three things very well that can make life difficult for Auburn’s defense: 1) they convert on third down, 2) they convert on fourth down, and 3) they hold onto the ball.
Minnesota is seventh nationally on third down (50.3 percent) and has converted 11 of 17 fourth-down opportunities. The Gophers’ success rates on these critical downs contribute to their 33:25 average when it comes to time of possession. The Tigers have been fantastic on third down (30 percent, eighth), but were a little more generous on fourth down (36 percent). If Minnesota is able to string together several extended drives that will put more pressure on Auburn’s defense to come up with the big play.
When Auburn Has the Ball
As up and down as Bo Nix has been this season, he has been solid overall considering the competition played and his lack of experience. The true freshman quarterback has thrown for 2,366 yards with 15 touchdowns. He’s had two 300-yard games and put up 245 against Georgia’s tough defense, but the reality is he’s going to produce around 160 yards through the air.
His top target is Seth Williams, who caught 55 passes for 801 yards and eight touchdowns in the regular season. Williams also was the only receiver to go over 310 yards. Minnesota was stingy against the pass, holding teams to 185 yards per game with 14 interceptions. The Gophers also produced 30 sacks, but one of the Tigers’ strengths on offense is a solid, veteran line that gave up just 16 sacks in the regular season. That number is even more impressive when you consider the caliber of teams Auburn faced.
With Nix still finding his way as a passer, it’s critical that the Tigers find a way to run the ball effectively. The target? When Auburn goes for more than 130 rushing yards it usually portends to positive results. The Tigers failed to eclipse that mark in losses to LSU, Georgia, and Florida. Contrast that to their huge 48-45 win over then-No. 5 Alabama in the Iron Bowl when Auburn racked up 181 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. For the season, the Tigers are averaging 211 rushing yards per game and could get a boost if JaTarvious Whitlow is at full strength. After missing a couple of games and being limited in others, the sophomore is coming off of a confidence-building 16-carry, 114-yard effort in the win over the Crimson Tide.
Minnesota has been equally solid against the run, holding teams to 128 yards per game. Linebacker Kamal Martin is a playmaker (66 tackles), but was limited to just eight games in the regular season. The heartbeat of the Gophers’ defense is safety Antoine Winfield Jr., who leads the way in tackles (83) and was fourth in the nation with seven interceptions in the regular season.
While this game features Minnesota’s potent offense against Auburn’s stout defense, it could come down to making the most of any scoring opportunities. If any of the Tigers’ drives stall outside of the red zone, they have a weapon in kicker Anders Carlson. He is 17-of-24 on field goals this season, with all of his misses coming from 40-49 yards (7-of-14). On the other side, the Gophers’ have attempted just one field goal from beyond 40 yards with Michael Lentz a solid 7-of-9 inside of that range.
Bowl games have become notorious for showcasing a shell of a regular-season team with seniors and draft-eligible juniors looking ahead and playing to not get hurt, if at all. Minnesota’s offense is filled with underclassmen that will return to Minneapolis next season. The majority of Auburn’s offensive line and defense are comprised of seniors. Will those seniors show up to play at a high level or are they already looking ahead? If the Tigers show up, they have more talent at key positions to walk out of Raymond James Stadium with a convincing win.
Prediction: Auburn 36, Minnesota 24
— 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.