Northwestern finds itself in the Citrus Bowl after falling to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship. The ‘Cats will play on New Year’s Day for the first time since the 2016 Outback Bowl, where they fell to Tennessee 45-6. This time around, NU will go against Auburn, whom it faced in the Outback Bowl in 2010. Can the ‘Cats exact revenge for the heartbreaking defeat more than a decade ago? Here are three reasons why Northwestern will finish the season strong and three reasons why the season may end on a less than sweet note.
Why Northwestern will beat Auburn
Northwestern will play with 100% effort for 60 minutes
The trip to Orlando is arguably Northwestern’s grandest postseason appearance since the ‘Cats found themselves in fruit-themed bowl in 1997, led by none other than All-American Pat Fitzgerald. Fitz will surely have the team fully motivated to complete the impressive year, and maybe more importantly, send defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz out with his 400th career win.
The Tigers meanwhile, who came into the year with national championship aspirations, see the Citrus Bowl as more of a consolation prize for a disappointing season. There’s a chance Auburn comes out slow and unmotivated, which will give Northwestern chances to build a lead early. SEC country doesn’t give many teams north of the Mason-Dixon Line much respect, an advantage Northwestern has often used as underdogs.
The front seven holds Tank Bigsby in check
Prior to the onslaught that was Trey Sermon and Ohio State’s rushing attack in the Big Ten Championship, the ‘Cats ranked fourth in the conference in rushing yards allowed per game. To say that the game against the Buckeyes was a fluke would be a stretch, but it should not repeat itself against a weaker Tiger offense.
That being said, Bigsby is certainly the man Northwestern should keep their eyes on. The SEC Freshman of the Year ran for 834 yards and averaged six yards per carry. The offense has run through the first-year, but if the ‘Cats front seven can stop Bigsby early, it can force mistake prone quarterback Bo Nix to try and pick apart one of the best secondaries in the nation. Auburn thrives as a run-first offense and is missing one of its best receivers in Anthony Schwartz, so stacking the box with seven will most likely throw the Tigers off of their game plan.
Auburn’s program is in a transition phase
With the Tigers’ firing of coach Gus Malzahn, defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has assumed the role of interim head coach for the bowl game. With Steele serving as the lead man for one week before the newly hired Bryan Harsin steps in, there is a question of how much this team will respond to its new voice of reason.
The sudden change of leadership may rub players, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, the wrong way seeing the coach that recruited them is no longer present. A potential lack of responsiveness to coaching could lead to early mistakes on the field that could benefit the ‘Cats .
Why Northwestern won’t beat Auburn
Auburn has better athletes
The reason why the SEC is seen as the best conference in the country year in and year out is the constant influx of top tier talent to programs such as Auburn. The Tigers consistently have had a top-12 recruiting class in the Malzahn era, per 247 Sports, and are littered with four- and five-star players.
For Northwestern, the recruits simply do not stack up. While Fitz has consistently shown the ability to develop lesser-touted players into NFL talent, the ‘Cats may find themselves overwhelmed by the size and athleticism of the Tigers. Much like the blowout Outback Bowl loss to Tennessee in 2016, SEC talent may end up prevailing.
Northwestern’s injuries and transfers
Not many teams around the country have been hit as hard by the transfer portal as Northwestern has. The ‘Cats have lost two of their top three leading rushers in Drake Anderson and Isaiah Bowser, their second leading receiver in Kyric McGowan, and sack leader Eku Leota. Additionally, the ‘Cats will be without star cornerback Greg Newsome II due to injury.
The loss of key contributors all around the field will open the door for younger players to step up on the biggest stage. Auburn is dealing with opt-outs of its own, but it feels much easier for a team with such an abundance of talent to plug in players. There is a chance that the replacement players for Northwestern will take the opportunity and run, much like Brandon Joseph and Peter Skoronski did in this current season, but if Northwestern loses, this could be a big reason why.
Peyton Ramsey’s struggles continue
Ramsey has turned the ball over five times over the past three games, including three turnovers against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship. His poor play has played a big role behind Northwestern losing two of its last three games, and why the offense sputtered in the second half against the Buckeyes.
While Auburn is expected to be without two of its best defensive backs in Jamien Sherwood and Christian Tutt, the Tigers’ secondary isn’t awful. Steele’s unit ranked third in the SEC in passing yards allowed per game and still features Roger McCreary and Smoke Monday. If the running game is held in check early and Ramsey is unable to step up, it could be a repeat of what happened in Indianapolis.