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The old switcheroo: hello Northwestern

Northwestern players congratulate their starting defensive tackle on a game-saving tackle-for-loss. Just kidding! That guy's the backup.
Northwestern players congratulate their starting defensive tackle on a game-saving tackle-for-loss. Just kidding! That guy's the backup.

So as expected, the Outback Bowl’s official announcement yesterday confirmed that “proactive” Auburn had received the bowl’s SEC invitation and would be heading to Tampa. What was substantially less expected: the Tigers’ opponent will be Northwestern rather than Wisconsin, thanks to the Wildcats’ head-to-head victory over the Badgers and the fact that it sounds like even the Outback is tired of seeing Wisconsin plow forward for four yards every first- and second-down with some doughy Ron Dayne clone. (Nevermind that this year’s model, John Clay, is the best back the Badgers have had in years and might be better than Dayne ever was.)

So it’s time to get ready for the first-ever meeting between the Tigers and Wildcats. Assorted thoughts:

— Aside from having to wait a few more years to get payback for Wisky’s Capital One bludgeoning of Auburn back on New Year’s Day ’06, there’s no downside to having Northwestern rather than the Badgers as an opponent. For starters, on paper victory looks a lot more likely against the Wildcats: Wisconsin was probably a little underrated after losing just three games–to Ohio State despite vastly outgaining the Buckeyes and losing on three return TDs, to Iowa back when they had their QB, and on the road to Northwestern–and Northwestern might be a little overrated when you remember they’ve got losses to Syracuse and Minnesota on the resume, a three-point last-second win over 0-12 Eastern Michigan, narrow escapes over Indiana and Purdue, and that their biggest win of the year–17-10 over Iowa in Kinnick–came courtesy of the injury to Ricky Stanzi and four Hawkeye turnovers. Looking at the season as a whole, there’s not much arguing that empirically, Wisconsin is the better team.

All that said, the Wildcats’ 33-31 win over the Badgers was anything but a fluke. Northwestern outgained Wisky by more than 100 yards, held the Badgers to less than 3 yards a carry, and never trailed. After a season of injury woes, quarterback Mike Kafka seemed to hit his stride down the stretch and tore the Bagders clean apart: 26/40, 326 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INT. If you can’t argue that Wisconsin wasn’t the better team over the course of the season, it’s equally hard to argue that Northwestern isn’t the better team today.

All together, though, I still think Auburn’s chances for victory are a little better with the Wildcats–Ingram lockdown or no, I wasn’t excited about Auburn’s front-seven facing up with the Badgers’ road-graders and Clay, or having to take on Wisky’s powerful defensive front and tackle-for-loss specialist O’Brien Schofield. Northwestern is extremely well-coached and the Tiger secondary will have its hands full with Kafka and Co., but Auburn will have a much easier time of it in the trenches against the smaller Wildcats.

— So there’s that, but maybe even more importantly, the Auburn-Northwestern match-up is a substantially more appealing one than Auburn-Wisconsin for various aesthetic reasons as well. There’s the unfamiliarity factor for one–Auburn’s already faced Wisconsin in bowl games twice this decade, and while there’s plenty of excitement in heading for the Outback and playing New Year’s Day and all that, I don’t know if there was any real thrill in a rubber match between the Badgers and Tigers.

Secondly, the difference in the Badgers’ and Wildcats’ offense couldn’t be any starker–where the Badgers are as resolutely cro-magnon in their choice of attack as any team in the country, Northwestern is one of the nation’s true progenitors of the spread and has been carving up bigger, faster, stronger Big 10 defenses for most of the past decade. With their coaching, Malzahn-like emphasis on tempo, and especially a Kafka on his game, the Wildcats are going to be a serious threat to put up 30-plus. At the same time, the Wildcats’ defense improved by leaps and bounds late in the year, but it’s still the same group that gave up 37 points to Syracuse, 35 to Minnesota, 31 to Wisconsin, 34 to Penn State.

Put all that together with Auburn’s offensive explosiveness and potentially ongoing defensive weaknesses (the Alabama game: fluke or trend? won’t know until Jan. 1), and you’re looking at a potential shootout the likes of which Auburn hasn’t enjoyed in a bowl game in eons. Neutrals should be plenty entertained.

— “Aesthetic reasons” does not extend to Northwestern’s choice of school colors. Football teams shouldn’t wear purple. At least, not football teams that want to be taken seriously.

— I expect the general respect given the ESS EEE SEE to result in Auburn being a medium-grade favorite, but before anyone in orange-and-blue gets too cocky, it’s worth remembering that in last year’s bowl game the Wildcats came in as heavy, heavy underdogs to Missouri and ended up outplaying Chase Daniel and friends. The Wildcats lost in OT, but they decisively outgained the Tigers and likely would have never had to go into extra frames if not for a Mizzou punt return-for-TD and missed Wildcat extra point. After a disappointing year Mizzou wasn’t as motivated or focused as Auburn will (presumably) be, but regardless, the evidence we’ve got is that Fitzgerald is plenty capable of getting his team ready for a bowl game.

Let’s also remember that while Auburn should have no problem getting fired up for this game–New Year’s Day, chance to send the seniors out with the bowl win last year’s group didn’t even get a shot at, 2010 momentum, all that good stuff–there’s no way it will mean as much to the Tigers as it will to Northwestern: the Wildcats haven’t won a bowl game since the 1949 Rose Bowl and are 1-7 in bowl games all-time. Yeah, they’re gonna want this one.

— Man, do I wish I’d stuck by my original guns, the ones that said the Outback would take Northwestern. Not sure where the flurry of reports from the Auburn beat that Wisconsin was a done deal came from, but we’ll know next year to take those with a healthy dose of skepticism.

— Tons more on Northwestern from Andy Bitter here, and there’s a statistical rundown from J.D. over at Track ‘Em.

— Quotes from the players involved in the Outback selection process available here and here. The Outback chairman has specifically shot down the HOT RUMOR that Jacobs had made a massive ticket guarantee, but to hear Jacobs admit how “proactive” he was, I’m not ruling out some kind of deal on the part of two parties. Frankly, I’d sort of hope there was–that kind of aggressiveness is what I want from Auburn’s athletic director.

— It’ll be awfully nice if Auburn does sell out their ticket allotment–or more–as a final “Shut up” to the critics of the Outback’s choice. Do your duty, Auburn fans.

— Even watching it at 9 in the freaking a.m. (stupid Mountain Time Zone), this game is going to be fun as hell. I can’t wait.

Photo via. As you might have guessed, No. 1 is, in fact, the kicker.

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