The Outback Bowl is one of this season’s most interesting bowl games in my estimation. The Minnesota Golden Gophers lost to the Wisconsin Badgers in their regular season finale and likely cost themselves a chance at going to the Rose Bowl. The Auburn Tigers can’t be that excited to be playing in Tampa and their bowl game is typically going to be the crack at Alabama in the Iron Bowl.
Auburn is favored by a touchdown with a total of 53 that has been on the rise in the lead-up to the game.
The talent gap between these two teams is quite large. That isn’t an indictment of Minnesota, a program that has been steadily trending upward under the watchful eyes of PJ Fleck. It’s just that Auburn recruits at a very high level as an SEC West program that turns out a lot of NFL players.
There are a lot of equalizers when it comes to the bowl season, though. Motivation is the biggest. Minnesota has to be thrilled to be playing on New Year’s Day. The Gophers have been a bowl fixture most of the decade, but they’ve played in the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit twice, the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, and then things like the Citrus Bowl, Texas Bowl, and then even the Insight Bowl and Music City Bowl dating back to the 2000s.
Getting a crack at a nationally-recognized program like Auburn is something special. It is a huge opportunity for Fleck, the program, and the players, especially after playing Georgia Tech, Washington State, and Central Michigan the last three years in bowl games. Those were all wins, by the way.
Auburn decimated Purdue last season after losing consecutive bowls to UCF and Oklahoma. It is really tough to gauge how excited the Tigers are for this game. We probably won’t know until the game gets going. Auburn can outrun and out-talent Minnesota all over the field if they want to. We had motivation questions last year going into the Music City Bowl and Auburn did a number on Purdue. Minnesota is light years better than last year’s Purdue team, but those are questions that we often have to answer.
Statistically, I think people will be really surprised to see what Minnesota accomplished as they start digging into the handicap of the Outback Bowl. The Gophers finished the regular season 30th in yards per play with 6.34. That was up from 67th at 5.68 last season. Last year, Minnesota didn’t even have a quarterback. This season, Tanner Morgan changed all that.
Morgan completed 66.1% of his throws with a 28/6 TD/INT ratio in the regular season. He had two 1,000-yard receivers in Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson. He also had a 1,000-yard rusher in Rodney Smith, as the Gophers ran for 4.1 yards per carry. This is still a run-first offense with 515 carries against 293 pass attempts. That may not be the best course of action against an Auburn defense that only allowed 3.41 yards per carry.
What do we get from Bo Nix? The true freshman was not great in the Iron Bowl. Auburn just relied heavily on the run to hang 48 points on Alabama. Nix only completed 50% of his passes for 173 yards. In total, Nix had a 57% completion rate with a 15/6 TD/INT ratio. If you recall, Nix threw three interceptions in the opener against Oregon. He only threw three after that, including zero picks in his last four games. He’s not going to go out and win many ballgames for Auburn, but if he can move the chains and avoid turning it over, that would be the preferred outcome.
The Auburn ground game got better as the season went along and as JaTarvious Whitlow returned from injury. He led the team, but only with 739 yards. Auburn had 4.8 yards per carry for the season, but ran for 5.3 yards per carry on Alabama. Grading the Tigers offense is pretty easy. It wasn’t very good. The Tigers were 78th in yards per play and were badly outgained by both LSU and Alabama. Defensive scores and special teams are part of the equation for the Tigers to spare them from losing games because of the offense.
The Auburn defense is still really good, though. The Tigers ranked 11th with 4.68 yards per play allowed on defense. The run defense is strong and the pass defense is pretty solid as well, though Auburn padded some sack numbers with 11 in the four non-conference games.
I’ll be looking at the under. Both teams want to run the ball and probably will 60+% of the time in this game. Obviously Auburn’s tempo is a little bit of a worry if the Tigers are moving the chains, but this is still a total on the rise up to 53. Maybe Minnesota gets a little more creative and the Gophers do have two excellent receivers in Bateman and Johnson, but this is a step up in class in terms of defensive talent for Minnesota. They only played three ranked teams during the season and none of them had this sort of talent.
Pick: Under 53