Football: 4 things to know about Northwestern’s Citrus Bowl opponent, Auburn

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Mickey Welsh/TNS

Auburn defensive coordinator and now interim head coach Kevin Steele in first half action against Alabama in the Iron Bowl at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala., on Saturday, November 30, 2019.

Drew Schott, Assistant Sports Editor


Football


Northwestern and Auburn will meet for just the second time ever in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day. The teams last faced each other in the 2010 Outback Bowl, which the Tigers won 38-35 in overtime.

While the No. 14 Wildcats (6-2, 6-1 Big Ten) made an unexpected run to their second conference championship in three seasons, Auburn (6-4, 6-4 SEC) racked up four-plus losses for the seventh straight season and fired its longtime coach Gus Malzahn after the regular season finale.

Here are four things to know about the Tigers before they face NU in Orlando.

1. Despite shaky quarterback play, Auburn has strong skill players.

Expectations were high for quarterback Bo Nix heading into 2020. Nix was named the SEC Freshman of the Year last season after throwing for 2,542 yards and 16 touchdowns and led the Tigers to high-profile wins over Oregon and Alabama.

However, Nix has struggled this season, tossing seven interceptions and getting sacked 20 times — with nine coming in three consecutive games. He only has 18 total touchdowns — 11 passing, seven rushing — as compared to 22 — 15 passing, seven rushing — at the end of the 2019 regular season.

Despite inconsistent play from Nix, Auburn has two of the SEC’s best offensive players in running back Tank Bigsby and wide receiver Seth Williams. Bigsby — a true freshman — is the conference’s fifth-best rusher with 834 yards and five touchdowns. Averaging over six yards per carry, he was named the co-SEC Freshman of the Year and earned a spot on the All-SEC freshman team.

The 6-foot-3 Williams is well-known for making spectacular, heavily-contested catches against some of the country’s toughest secondaries. The junior finished the regular season with 688 yards and four touchdowns and will be going against a defense without its best cornerback in Greg Newsome II.

2. Auburn struggled against ranked opponents.

Of the Tigers’ four regular-season losses, three came against conference foes ranked in the top 10. Each defeat was by double-digits.

The first came against then-No. 4 Georgia in October, a 27-6 onslaught where Auburn failed to find the end zone for the first time since 2018.

The Tigers then went 4-1 before facing No. 1 Alabama in the Iron Bowl. Despite Nick Saban not coaching because of a positive COVID-19 test, the Crimson Tide dismantled Auburn by 29 points, picking off Nix twice and holding the offense to 347 total yards.

One week later, the Tigers blew a six-point lead in a 31-20 loss to No. 5 Texas A&M. Nix threw for 144 yards, while Bigsby failed to reach 100 yards.

In these games, Auburn faced the second-, fourth- and sixth-best offenses in the SEC — Alabama averages nearly 550 yards per game and the Aggies and Bulldogs average more than 400 yards per game. The Tigers’ offensive attack also had to line up against the SEC’s top three defenses in those matchups.

Meanwhile, the Cats have the fifth-best scoring defense and the second-best defensive efficiency in the nation, but only average 348.6 yards per game on offense.

3. The Tigers fare better when they create turnovers.

Despite struggles against top teams, Auburn can stifle offenses with playmaking from its defense.

The Tigers grabbed nine interceptions in the regular season, tied for third in the SEC. Additionally, the team recovered four fumbles.

In five of its six wins, Auburn forced 11 total turnovers. But in its four losses, the Tigers notched only two takeaways, one against Alabama and one against South Carolina.

NU has struggled with turnovers in its losses this season, with a combined four interceptions and three fumbles in defeats to Michigan State and Ohio State.

Pat Fitzgerald always highlights turnover margin is a key indicator of victory. This game should follow that adage.

4. Friday marks a clash between two defensive-minded head coaches.

The Tigers hired Malzahn’s replacement, Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin, last week. However, interim head coach Kevin Steele will remain in the position for the Citrus Bowl.

Steele was promoted from defensive coordinator, and will still perform those duties during the bowl game.

Steele worked as the defensive coordinator at Clemson and LSU before he was hired by Malzahn in 2016. He is known as a stellar recruiter and helped Auburn reach the 2017 SEC Championship Game.

On the opposite side of the field is Fitzgerald. A two-time All-American and winner of the Nagurski and Bednarik Awards at NU, Fitzgerald — who has taken the Cats to a bowl game in 10 of his 15 seasons — would achieve his fourth-straight postseason victory with a win over Auburn.

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Twitter: @dschott328

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