Auburn Set For Outback Bowl Battle with Another Big 10 Opponent

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Auburn Set For Outback Bowl Battle with Another Big 10 Opponent

For the second time under head coach Gus Malzahn and fifth time overall the Auburn Tigers will travel to Tampa to take on another Big 10 opponent in the Outback Bowl. The Tigers most recent opponent, Wisconsin took down the Tigers in a high-scoring overtime affair following a Daniel Carlson missed field goal.

In that 2015 New Year’s bowl game Auburn could not stop the Badgers, specifically Melvin Gordon, who racked up 251 rushing yards and three scores. Despite collecting three interceptions, the Tigers’ defense was completely gashed by the Badger’s run game in the second half. There were 41 points scored in the second half and Wisconsin added a fieldgoal in the first possession of overtime. The game ended on the Carlson miss and Auburn’s defensive coordinator, Ellis Johnson, was let go after a two year tenure.

Even though Auburn had a high scoring offense, the 2014 season was defined by missed offensive opportunities, such as the back-to-back turnovers against Texas A&M. The defense simply could not get off the field all season.

Following that season, Malzahn put an emphasis on having an elite defensive coordinator on the sidelines; hiring Will Muschamp for a year and then current coordinator, Kevin Steele. The defense began to turn around under Muschamp, but really hit stride under Steele, whose units have been among the countries best. This current defensive unit may go down as one of the very bests in Auburn history. 

On the other side of the ball, Auburn’s offense has been anything but consistent in the last few years, dating back to that 2015 decision to hire Muschamp as the DC. There have been moments of greatness under Malzahn, but almost every one of those moments have been followed by head-scratching let down games.

Among those has to include the embarrassing losses to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl following the 2016 season and the University of Central Florida match-up in the 2018 Peach Bowl. The Oklahoma loss could be pinned on the mounting offensive injuries, specifically at quarterback, but the UCF loss came down to motivation. Leading up to the game, it was easy to see that UCF was motivated to prove they were overlooked by the playoff committee. Auburn, coming off a let down against Georgia in the SEC Championship had nothing to play for and it showed all through the game. 

Malzahn’s two bowl wins have come against two completely out-matched teams in meaningless bowl games. Auburn thumped Memphis in 2016 and destroyed Purdue in the Music City Bowl this past season. In many ways, this upcoming game against the Gophers straddles that line.

Minnesota was on the precipice of making an improbable CFP appearance, but ultimately came up short against Wisconsin. Then the Badgers went on to lose to Ohio State in the Big 10 Championship game. Coach PJ Fleck has certainly made the Gophers relevant.

Fleck has been a hot name in coaching for several years, thanks to his ability to get the most of his players and his catch phrases, such as “Row the Boat.” Western Michigan became a non-Power Five staple under Fleck. The Gophers went 5-7 in 2017 and 7-6 last season including a bowl win against Georgia Tech. 

Auburn’s fanbase expected a championship level type year, but losses to Florida, LSU, and rival Georgia derailed that chance. A win against bitter rival Alabama assuaged some of those feelings, but ultimately a win instead of any of those three losses would have Auburn in at least a New Year’s Six game.

Motivation is going to be the story for both teams, but for different reasons. Minnesota may not have made the Big Ten championship game, but Fleck has been one of the best motivators in the game and the chance to beat an SEC school is essentially every non SEC team’s ultimate goal. This is especially true the underdog Gophers. And on top of that, Minnesota doesn’t have the NFL talent to worry about players sitting out. 

Auburn is playing for a ten win season, which alone should be motivation. The question becomes, will Malzahn have his team ready to play and who will those players be? It would come as no surprise if Marlon Davidson and Derrick Brown sit out the bowl game and no one should blame them if they do. Brown is a first round lock and has the potential to be a Top Ten overall player. Brown loves Auburn and is a competitor, but he’s played a lot of college games and seeing what has happened to other players of his caliber, it makes business sense to sit this one out. Davidson is a fringe first day draft player and a great bowl game would certainly help his chances, but so could sitting out and adding a strong All-star type game. 

Hopefully, Auburn will be able to get several playmakers, such as Anthony Schwartz, healthy. Gus showed an ability to adapt in the Iron Bowl, winning without jet sweeps and bubble screens. It will be interesting to see if that continues. 

The Gophers have a balanced attack that features a 3,000 yard passer in Tanner Morgan,  a 1,000 yard rusher in Rodney Smith, and two 1,000 receivers in Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson. Even in scoring, the Gophers are extremely balanced with 28 passing TDs to 24 rushing scores. Morgan completes 66 percent of his passes eventhough  he has taken 30 sacks. 

The glaring weakness is the Gopher’s true scoring, which they are ranked at 151st in the country in points per game while allowing 24. The layoff certainly benefits Auburn, who has so much untapped talent that an extra month of practice will benefit the young players. The Tigers and Gophers kick off at noon in Tampa on January 1st. 

The post Auburn Set For Outback Bowl Battle with Another Big 10 Opponent appeared first on Track 'Em Tigers, Auburn's oldest and most read independent blog.

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