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Thursday, December 31, 2009
Outback Bowl preview

By Chris Low

Breaking down the Outback Bowl on Friday (ESPN, 11 a.m. ET) between Auburn (7-5) and Northwestern (8-4):

WHO TO WATCH: When senior quarterback Chris Todd had it going this season, Auburn was pretty tough to beat. For a lot of people, it was a surprise that he’s the one who emerged in August as the starter after missing all of spring while recovering from shoulder surgery. It wasn’t all smooth sailing for Todd, who set an Auburn single-season record with 21 touchdown passes this year. He suffered through a forgettable junior season while trying to fight through an injured throwing shoulder that was never right. And then this season, he had the lull in consecutive losses to Arkansas, Kentucky and LSU where he was held under 140 yards passing in all three games to go along with no touchdowns and two interceptions. But the resilient Todd came back strong in his last four games with nine touchdown passes.

WHAT TO WATCH: Which version of the Auburn defense shows up for this game? Is it the one that looked fresh and aggressive in the 26-21 loss to Alabama in the final game of the regular season? Or is it the one that struggled to make it through 11 straight weeks without a bye and wound up finishing last in the SEC in scoring defense at 26.9 points per game? The long layoff should really benefit the Auburn defense. It’s not a deep unit, and several guys should be back closer to 100 percent now that they’ve had the extra time off. The Tigers would love to cap off the season with their most complete defensive performance yet. They’ll probably need it against Northwestern senior quarterback Mike Kafka, who throws it quickly, accurately and with a lot of confidence.

WHY TO WATCH: Gus Malzahn’s offenses are always a lot of fun to watch. And with this much time to prepare, you know he’ll have a full arsenal of reverses, throw-back passes and various other wrinkles ready for the Wildcats. This is also the healthiest the Tigers have been on offense in a long time, especially with freshman running back Onterio McCalebb back to full strength after being plagued by an ankle injury during the second half of the season. Freshman Philip Lutzenkirchen is worth keeping an eye on, too, as he steps into the H-back role.

PREDICTION: Northwestern ended the season by winning four of its last five games and five of its last seven. Auburn, on the other hand, lost five of its last six SEC games. But the difference in this contest will be Kafka, who’s shown this season that he can beat teams with his arm and his legs. Northwestern 27, Auburn 24.