As the holiday season wraps up, and the calendar begins to turn… the bowl season is only just heating up.
One round of College Football Playoff games may be in the books, but the excitement about college football isn’t limited to only the national championship picture - far from it. There are still plenty of enticing bowl games across the country… including one of the country’s biggest match-ups between Auburn and Minnesota.
It’s been over a month since we’ve had a little Tigers football, so what are we waiting for?
Let’s get into it…
The Outback Bowl
(12)Auburn Tigers vs. (18)Minnesota Golden Gophers
Wednesday, January 1 | 1:00PM EST
Raymond James Stadium
ESPN Spread: Auburn -7.5
ABOUT THE MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS
- 10-2 (7-2 in the Big Ten), 18th in the SP+
- Having their best season in over a century under third year head coach PJ Fleck
- Offense is incredibly efficient, with one of the best passing attacks in the country, balanced with a solid rushing game
- Defense features a fantastic secondary anchored by safety Antoine Winfield Jr
When PJ Fleck arrived in Minneapolis after the 2016 season and began promising Big Ten Championship, many (rightly) scoffed at the notion.
Sure, Fleck had success during his time in Western Michigan, culminating in a Cotton Bowl berth before he got the job with the Golden Gophers. But in a division featuring almost frustratingly consistent rivals like Wisconsin and Iowa - within a conference that features blue blood programs like Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan - it was hard to believe that Minnesota, who at the time claimed just one 10-win season in the last 100 years, would break through the pack.
But that was then, this is now - and after putting together a 10-2 season, including the program’s first 9-0 start since 1904, the Golden Gopher faithful are starting to believe this could be for real.
Of course, dreams of a conference championship, or even a CFP berth, were thwarted after rivalry game losses to the Hawkeyes and Badgers, throwing a bit of frigid, Midwestern winter wind onto their magical season.
However… a win in the Outback Bowl over one of the game's traditional powerhouses would be the perfect way for the Gophers to kick off their New Year, and their new era…
Auburn has seen lots of fantastic QBs this year - from Jake Fromm, to Justin Herbert, to Heisman winner Joe Burrow. But to put Minnesota QB Tanner Morgan below these names would be a mistake - one that plenty of teams have paid for this season.
Morgan’s best game of the season by far came against the Penn State Nittany Lions, when he absolutely torched the PSU secondary for 339 yards and three touchdowns on a downright startling 90% completions.
But that wasn’t just a one-off performance for the sophomore, who finished this season with nearly 3,000 yards and 28 touchdowns for a final QB rating of 180.4 (6th in the country). He’s done it with the help of two absolutely fantastic receivers in Tyler Johnson and Rashad Bateman - both of whom have gotten 1,100+ yards receiving to go with 11 touchdowns each. The Auburn secondary would do well to make sure they don’t let these two talented wideouts out of their sight.
But if this weren’t enough, they also have a 1,000 yard rusher in Rodney Smith lining up in the backfield, however there could be an opportunity for the Tigers to take advantage of some issues along the line. More on that in a bit…
On the defensive side of the football, the Gophers play tough, gritty team defense - and they make you earn every inch.
They rank 25th in explosive drives allowed (drives in which they allow 10+ yards per play from the offense), and are 17th in turnover rate - no doubt helped by the fantastic All-American, Antoine Winfield Jr. and this talented secondary lurking for opposing QBs. Led by Winfield Jr., the Gophers have recorded 14 interceptions thus far this season, and are limiting opponents to just 184.9 yards per game through the air (12th). Bo Nix should have has hands full against this unit tomorrow.
On the flip side, however, when they’re not taking the ball away, they’re not particularly disruptive defensively. They’re 47th in broken drives (yards in which they allow zero or negative yards), and are 114th in tackles for loss on the year - despite the formidable presence of Carter Coughlin roaming at linebacker (9.5 tackles for a loss on the year).
If Auburn can establish their rushing attack, they should be able to control the possession game to nickel and dime their way downfield.
Key for Auburn
Get pressure on Morgan and this passing game
If there’s one weakness in this Minnesota offensive attack, it could come in the form of their offensive line.
The Gophers are 112th in sack rate allowed, and in their two losses against Iowa and Wisconsin, they allowed a combined 11 sacks on the day. Auburn, therefore, needs to get into the backfield to disrupt this unit’s timing, and force Minnesota to try establishing their rushing attack against one of the country’s more formidable rushing defenses.
Do this, and the Tigers will have Minnesota on the ropes from the get go - and for as proficient an offense as they are, they’re only slightly above average in explosiveness (37th in explosive drive rate offensively), so it will knock them out of their comfort zone.
What Will Happen
This game has been on everyone’s "must watch" list for a reason; it promises to be a great one.
As good as Auburn’s defensive line has been, their pedestrian sack rate does beg asking whether they’ll be able to take advantage of perhaps the only weakness in this Minnesota offense. But on the other side, Minnesota’s secondary may find success against Nix and this passing attack - but can they stop the Auburn rushing attack?
I have Auburn winning a close one, but it’s going to be a journey to get there. I anticipate fireworks early, then for these two defenses to settle in… setting up a fantastic finish.
It’s New School vs. Old School, Upstart vs. Traditional Powerhouse, SEC vs. Big Ten. This is what bowl season is all about.
See you on the other side, fans.