Auburn Set For Outback Bowl Battle With Another Big 10 Opponent
Minnesota's huge offensive line may be a challenge for Auburn in the Outback Bowl (Photo:USA TODAY Sports)
For the second time under head coach Gus Malzahn and the fifth time overall, the Auburn Tigers will travel to Tampa to take on a Big 10 opponent in the Outback Bowl. The Tigers’ most recent Big 10 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 Badgers’ run game in the second half. 41 points were scored in the second half, and Wisconsin added a field goal in the first overtime possession. The game ended on Carlson’s 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 back-to-back turnovers against Texas A&M. The defense simply could not get off the field that season.
Following the 2014 season, Malzahn put emphasis on having an elite defensive coordinator on the sideline, hiring Will Muschamp for a year followed by the current coordinator, Kevin Steele. The defense began to turn around under Muschamp but really hit its stride under Steele, whose units have been among the country’s best. This current unit may go down as one of the best in Auburn history.
On the other side of the ball, Auburn’s offense has been anything but consistent the last few years, dating back to the 2015 decision to hire Muschamp as the DC. There have been moments of greatness under Malzahn, but almost every such moment has been followed by head-scratching letdown games.
These include the embarrassing losses to Oklahoma in the 207 Sugar Bowl and the University of Central Florida matchup in the 2018 Peach Bowl. The Oklahoma loss could be pinned on 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 it was overlooked by the playoff committee. Auburn, coming off a letdown against Georgia in the SEC Championship, had nothing to play for, and it showed throughout the game.
Malzahn’s two bowl wins have come against completely out-matched teams in meaningless games. Auburn thumped Memphis in 2016 and destroyed Purdue in the Music City Bowl this past season. In many ways, the 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, which then lost to Ohio State in the Big 10 Championship game. Coach P. J. 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 out 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 fan base expected a championship-level year, but losses to Florida, LSU, and archrival Georgia derailed that. A win against bitter rival Alabama assuaged some feelings, but it remains that a win against one of those 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 is one of the best motivators in the game; the chance to beat an SEC school is essentially every non-SEC team’s ultimate goal. This is especially true of the underdog Gophers. And on top of that, Minnesota doesn’t have the NFL talent that leads to worry about players sitting out the game.
Auburn is playing for a ten win-season, which alone should be motivation. Buts, will Malzahn have his team ready to play, and who will those players be? It will 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. After 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 pick, 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-yard receivers in Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson. They are balanced in scoring with 28 passing TD’s to 24 rushing scores. Morgan completes 66 percent of his passes even though he has taken 30 sacks. The Gophers’ glaring weakness is scoring, where they are ranked at 151st in the country in points per game while allowing 24 ppg.
The layoff benefits Auburn, which 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.