Fearless Prediction: Auburn vs. Northwestern in Citrus Bowl
With so much offseason talk surrounding Auburn and the program’s future, it’s easy to forget that the Tigers still have business left in this season before officially passing the torch to Bryan Harsin.
However awkward it may be, Kevin Steele is the interim coach for what is likely his final game wearing a visor with an Auburn insignia, and he’ll have his hands full preparing for one of the best teams in the Big Ten, No. 14 Northwestern, which has been the definition of program stability juxtaposed to the volatility of life on the Plains.
The Wildcats (6-2) wrapped up their season as Big Ten West champions for the second time in the last 3 seasons and hung tough with Ohio State for the better part of 3 quarters in the B1G Championship before Trey Sermon and the Buckeyes quite literally ran away with the title.
When it comes to defending the pass, you won’t find a team much better than Northwestern. The Wildcats finished No. 1 in the nation in pass efficiency defense and only allowed one opponent to throw for more than 230 yards. The Northwestern secondary consists of several ball-hawking defensive backs that propelled the Wildcats to the 2nd-best interception-per-game rate in the nation (1.75), which included intercepting Justin Fields twice in the B1G title game.
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On offense, Northwestern is a little more what you’d expect from a Big Ten team. Pat Fitzgerald’s team is fairly balanced, rushing the ball 57.9% of the time with a running-back-by-committee approach in which Northwestern’s top 5 ball carriers all finished the season within 50 yards of each other.
Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey isn’t going to light up any stat sheets, but he has the requisite skills to do some damage, especially against an Auburn defense that has been inconsistent, allowing over 430 yards of offense in 6 games.
The key for Auburn to finish this season on a high note and to avoid losing on New Year’s Day in consecutive years will be to run Tank Bigsby more than the Tigers ever have, and then run him some more. That was true even before play-making receiver Anthony Schwartz opted out of the bowl game.
Bigsby, the newly-named SEC Freshman of the Year, will be recovered from running the ball for career highs in attempts (26) and rushing yardage (192) in Auburn’s 24-10 win over Mississippi State. Bigsby needs just 166 yards to reach 1,000 on the season, and there’s a real case to be made that if Auburn approaches this game correctly, he could break that milestone with ease. For as great as Northwestern’s secondary is, Ohio State’s Sermon had only eclipsed 100 yards rushing once in his previous 19 games before totaling 331 yards on 11.4 yards a carry against the Wildcats.
This formula is of course nothing revelatory about Auburn’s best offensive strategy to win games, but the Tigers have a propensity to not use Bigsby as much as they should as Chad Morris and the rest of the world waits for Bo Nix to make that progressive leap in Year 2.
Of possible concern relating to Nix leading into the Citrus Bowl is the QB reading the writing on the wall that the quarterback position for 2021 will likely be an open competition. If Nix presses in his first audition with Harsin watching, it’d be no surprise if Northwestern’s Brandon Joseph comes down with another of his already nation-leading 6 interceptions.
Toss in the Nix woes away from Jordan-Hare — he’s thrown 9 more interceptions on the road despite throwing 63 fewer passes than at home — and the ingredients are there for another South Carolina performance. Northwestern made Fields look like an average QB, and Nix is far from being in the same tier as the Ohio State quarterback.
In the end, this game will come down to whichever lackluster offense has a better day. Auburn’s defense had its best game of the season limiting Mississippi State to just 240 yards of total offense, and the Wildcats pack a similar offensive punch, or rather lack thereof, averaging just 23.4 points a game, the 97th worst in FBS, but also only 2.3 fewer points than Auburn.
Time to be fearless.
Northwestern’s rushing defense was so porous against Ohio State, that even Morris will be compelled to run Bigsby north of 30 times for 225 yards, and Nix will contribute an additional 50 yards rushing as Auburn surpasses 300 rushing yards for the first time this season. Anders Carlson, incensed at not being named a finalist for the 2020 Lou Groza Award, hits a field goal in the final minute as Auburn pulls off the mild upset.
FEARLESS PREDICTION: Auburn 20, Northwestern 17.
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