The No. 14 Wildcats prepare to kick off 2021 on a high note as they look to take down the Auburn Tigers in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida. After a strong overall campaign from NU, it will square off against an SEC foe that has faced an overall challenging year in its 6-4 season.
With a demanding scheduling including three top-five matchups, the Tigers have suffered some painful losses and have battled through defensive challenges and a coaching change. To break down AU’s season and give insight on the Citrus Bowl matchup, we chatted with College and Magnolia.
INU: Auburn has faced some tough matchups with three of its four losses coming to top-five teams. How do you think this year’s Auburn squad compares to past teams, and what have you seen from the Tigers overall in 2020?
C&M: I think overall this has been a disappointing season for Auburn fans. Even years are usually tough because it means road trips to Athens & Tuscaloosa in the same season. Auburn had a chance to knock off A&M at home but couldn’t make any plays in the fourth quarter. You could maybe excuse those three losses but not that nightmare performance in Columbia, South Carolina. That loss locked in this season as a disappointment. I think most Auburn fans believed this team could be 8-2 or 7-3.
INU: SEC Freshman of the Year running back Tank Bigsby and quarterback Bo Nix have been big difference-makers on the offensive side of the ball. What have those two brought to the Auburn offense, and what do you expect from them in the Citrus Bowl?
C&M: Bigsby is unquestionably the engine of Auburn’s offense. It took longer than it should for Auburn’s offensive braintrust to realize he’s the centerpiece, but once they did, that’s when the Tigers' offense started rolling. Unfortunately, a hip injury vs. Tennessee sidelined him for much of the Iron Bowl, which killed the Tigers' chances of even making that game interesting. He started looking his normal self against Texas A&M and Mississippi State, so I am optimistic he’ll be as close to 100% as a running back can be this late in the year.
As for Bo, it’s been a mixed bag. There are moments he looks like the five-star savior Auburn fans had hoped. Then he’ll throw a dumb interception or not set his feet and miss an easy touchdown. He’s a dangerous runner, and Auburn is starting to use him more in that way to offset his inconsistency as a passer. Nix hasn’t been great away from Jordan-Hare, so expect Auburn to try & get the ground game going to take some pressure off him.
INU: What has been the cause of the struggles for the Tiger defense, and what do they need to do to stop Northwestern?
C&M: Auburn lost so many important pieces of last year’s defense that it’s not a surprise to see the struggles. It wasn’t just Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson and Noah Igbinoghene. It was guys like Daniel Thomas, Jeremiah Dinson and Javaris Davis too. They weren’t household names, but they were also incredibly important to the success of this Auburn defense over the past few seasons. Throw in the captain of this team in middle linebacker K.J. Britt going down with an injury early, and it’s not a surprise to see this unit struggle so much.
The big cause for Auburn’s struggles on defense has been the inability to get off the field on third down & inconsistent run defense. There were times Auburn specifically schemed to encourage the opposing offense to run the ball so they could slow down an explosive passing attack (Ole Miss), but there were other times Auburn just flat out got whooped consistently at the line of scrimmage (Tennessee & Texas A&M). You can maybe survive some of those run game struggles if you have a nasty pass rush, but Auburn doesn’t have one so when they are in place to actually get off the field with a stop they can’t.
Turnovers have been the wildcard. This unit has done a good job bending but not breaking a ton and has come up with some big-time turnovers at the right time. I believe Auburn has something like four end zone interceptions. One went back 100 yards against Tennessee basically sealing that game despite Auburn’s run defense struggles.
INU: Do you anticipate the firing of Gus Malzahn will play a significant role in Auburn’s performance this weekend?
C&M: Maybe? Malzahn was beloved by his players, so I imagine a bowl game that wasn’t necessarily going to excite this team to begin with is even less exciting with Malzahn gone. It won’t affect the overall game planning or scheme though. The defense has always been Steele’s fiefdom and no one in college football outside of maybe Rhett Lashlee has a better understanding of the offense than Chad Morris. He’s been calling plays all year as well so I don’t think it will have a massive impact on this game.
INU: Who are some Auburn players that Wildcat fans should be aware of heading into Saturday’s matchup?
C&M: Obviously Bigsby is the big name to know so I’ll try and point out a few players that maybe don’t get as much buzz.
Offensively, fifth-year senior WR Eli Stove is the most underrated player on Auburn’s offense. Per PFF, Stove was the only FBS WR to have caught 40 passes without having a drop. He’s got reliable hands, elusive in the open field and can make an impact as a runner as well. Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz (assuming they play) are the flashier names but Stove is probably the most reliable.
On defense, don’t sleep on Colby Wooden. He’s a redshirt freshman defensive lineman that has quietly had a big-time season. He leads the team in tackles for loss (9.5) and is second in sacks (3.5). He’s had a more productive freshman year than second round draft pick Marlon Davidson had back in 2016.
INU: What are your impressions of Northwestern, and what aspect of the Wildcats’ play is most intimidating to the Tigers?
C&M: I haven’t watched a lot of Northwestern, but my general impression is that defense carries this team. Per SP+ & FEI that unit is a top-three defense in the country. Given Auburn’s struggles against elite defenses this year, I am very concerned that Auburn’s offense will struggle to move the ball very consistently.
Offensively, I am not sure if there is any one player that scares me. It’s more of being concerned about Auburn’s defense being able to slow down the run game and get off the field on third down.
INU: What does Northwestern have to do to take down Auburn, and what is a must-win matchup in this game?
C&M: Even without Malzahn on the sideline, it’s still pretty simple to know if Auburn is going to win a game or not. Can they run the football? If Auburn can get Tank going, taking the pressure off of Bo and finishing drives off in the red zone, Auburn will win. If Northwestern’s defense can slow Auburn’s rushing attack down and force Nix to consistently beat them through the air then the Wildcats will win. That makes Auburn’s OL vs. Northwestern’s DL the big matchup in my eyes.
INU: What is your score prediction?
C&M: I am not expecting the prettiest game of football and am betting it’s a low scoring affair. Malzahn had a terrible bowl record, so if he was coaching I’d probably lean Wildcats. But I am going to say that Tank is healthy enough to make enough plays on the ground for AU to escape with a W. Something like 20-17 Auburn.