NCF Nation: Outback Bowl first take
Jan. 1, 11 a.m. (ESPN)
Northwestern take by Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg: After being snubbed by the Outback Bowl for Iowa last year, Northwestern received a somewhat surprising invitation to the Tampa game, as it makes its first Jan. 1 bowl appearance since 1997.
The Wildcats now look for the same result as the Hawkeyes, who last year crushed South Carolina in the Outback to claim the Big Ten's only bowl victory. Northwestern hasn't won a bowl game since the 1949 Rose.
The game pits two teams (Northwestern and Auburn) that have never played, as well as two potentially explosive spread offenses. Senior quarterback Mike Kafka, a second-team All-Big Ten selection, leads a Wildcats attack that settled into a rhythm in its final two games. Kafka will need to be sharp against an Auburn defense that ranks 28th nationally against the pass, though there could be some running room for a Wildcats rushing attack that has struggled to get on track.
Veteran defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz has been a key part of Northwestern's surge the last two seasons, but he will be tested against Auburn and spread guru Gus Malzahn. The Tigers will try just about anything on offense and boast the nation's No. 12 rushing unit, led by senior running back Ben Tate. The game features two efficient passers in Kafka and Tigers senior Chris Todd, who ranks 21st nationally in passer rating.
Northwestern comes in very hot, having gone 3-0 in November with two wins against top 20 opponents. Auburn started 5-0 before dropping five of its final seven contests, though the Tigers did give No. 1 Alabama all it could handle.
Auburn take by SEC blogger Chris Low: Auburn was one of six teams in the SEC this season finishing 7-5, but emerged out of the pack as the Outback Bowl’s top choice. The Tigers were one defensive stand away from knocking off Alabama in the regular-season finale two weeks ago and really putting a memorable stamp on Gene Chizik’s first season as head coach.
The long break before the bowl game should help Auburn as much as any team in the SEC. The Tigers battled depth problems all season, which explains in part their fast start and rocky finish to the season. They wound up losing five of their last six SEC games. But the way they played against the Crimson Tide gives everybody on the Plains hope that there are better days ahead.
Gus Malzahn’s offense is one of the more unpredictable units in the country. The Tigers like to spread you out and will run everything from reverses, to direct-snap packages to throw-back passes. Their bread and butter this season, though, was turning around and handing the ball off to Ben Tate, who rushed for 1,254 yards.
Defensively, it was a struggle for Auburn. The Tigers finished last in the SEC in scoring defense (26.9 points per game). But, again, they looked like a different defensive unit against Alabama and turned in their best effort of the season on that side of the ball, holding Mark Ingram to 30 yards rushing.
Jan. 1, 11 a.m. (ESPN)
Iowa take by Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg: Back on Oct. 4, a New Year's Day bowl appearance seemed impossible for Iowa.
The Hawkeyes were 3-3, hopeless in close games and still transitioning at the quarterback position. Head coach Kirk Ferentz was on the hot seat, and his coordinators were under fire.
But Iowa started to figure it out at Indiana on Oct. 11, and the Hawkeyes won five of their final six games, including a potentially program-changing upset of Penn State. They've been rewarded with an Outback Bowl appearance against a very beatable South Carolina team.
Hawkeyes junior running back Shonn Greene has been unstoppable so far, and he aims for his 13th consecutive 100-yard rushing game against the nation's No. 11 defense. South Carolina did a decent job against Georgia's Knowshon Moreno on Sept. 13 but struggled down the stretch. Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi will be challenged by a talented Gamecocks secondary, so the burden once again will be on Greene.
Iowa ranks a spot below South Carolina in total defense, and the Hawkeyes held eight teams to 17 points or fewer. South Carolina doesn't run the ball well at all, and Iowa will need to put pressure on quarterback Chris Smelley. The Gamecocks rank 114th nationally in sacks allowed.
South Carolina take by SEC blogger Chris Low: He last coached Florida back in 2001, but Steve Spurrier is still a hot item in the Sunshine State.
His draw was evidently enough to get South Carolina (7-5) to the Outback Bowl to face Iowa on Jan. 1 even though the Gamecocks played some of their worst football in the final few weeks of the regular season.
In their last two games, the Gamecocks were outscored 87-20 by Florida and Clemson and looked like a team that was going nowhere fast offensively. The root of the problem is that Spurrier isn't sold on any of the quarterbacks on campus.
The Hawkeyes (8-4) came on to win five of their last six games to close the season. Their only loss in that stretch was a three-point decision to Illinois.
South Carolina's defense has been rock-solid most of the season under first-year coordinator Ellis Johnson, but will have its hands full with Iowa's Shonn Greene, who's rushed for 1,729 yards and 17 touchdowns. The Gamecocks are ranked 11th nationally in total defense.