One team went 6-1, won its division under the most irregularly regular of circumstances, and then took an entirely-expected loss in the conference championship game.
The other team went a respectable 6-4...and promptly ponied up $21 million to fire the head coach, setting off a years-in-the-making power struggle over a season that didn’t fucking matter in the first place.
Yes, if there’s anything that sums up the differing approaches taken by the Big Ten and SEC toward the coronavirus pandemic, it’s the Citrus Bowl. A team that followed the rules and one that knows the rules are just a set of archaic guidelines only followed by nerds get together tomorrow to play for a basket of fruit and the assurance that yes, there was in fact a reason that we put ourselves through all this shit in 2020.
At least somebody's 2020 vision board worked out pic.twitter.com/zzfdpZoy3K— Vrbo Citrus Bowl (@CitrusBowl) December 30, 2020
Welcome to the Citrus Bowl!
The SEC brings: An interim HC, a questionable QB, and some great names
The B1G brings: Stoic, unforgiving commitment to the Ways of the Ancestors
The Major Narrative: The reason the SEC wants it more vs. the reason the Big Ten is bad.
#14 Northwestern Wildcats (6-2) vs. Auburn Tigers (6-4)
January 1 | 12pm CT | ABC | NU -3.5 | O/U 43.5
Camping World Stadium, Orlando, FL
We’ll get to what happened the last time these two wacky upstarts met in a football game on New Year’s Day in Florida...but first let’s get an idea of what our toilet papering friends from the third-most important school in Alabama—sorry, we’re big hockey guys...go Chargers!—have been up to in 2020:
What the hell is up with Auburn?
Apparently, enough to fire a coach—in hilarious fashion!
The Bullet Points:
- Major boosters weren’t happy with Auburn HC Gus Malzahn and ponied up the $21 million they’d need to buy him out of his contract.
- Those same boosters hoped to install their man—and player favorite—DC Kevin Steele as the new head coach almost immediately.
- New (well, hired in 2018) AD Allen Greene and President Jay Gogue created the dreaded search committee and hired one of those search firms.
- Fans turned on Greene but boosters did not, trying to make sure Greene knew they’d run him out of Auburn.
- UAB HC Bill Clark turned down the job? Maybe? Also some Steve Sarkisian rumors!
- The committee decided on Boise State HC Bryan Harsin, who went 69-19 while leading the Broncos.
Auburn, ladies and gentlemen!
...oh, right, the football. They were fine at that, I guess!
Auburn plays out, by Football Outsiders’ FEI ratings, as a middle-of-the-road team (40th in offense, 65th in defense) who bounces up to 35th in their overall rankings—and you’ll never guess this would happen—because they’re an SEC team.
That’s not to say I’m not concerned. The Tigers have All-Name RB Tank Bigsby who, since becoming the feature back for the Tigers in their October 10 game with Arkansas, has only been held under 4.7 ypc once—by Alabama. With a build not unlike Trey Sermon of Ohio State, if Auburn is able to get a lead and let Bigsby—who is supposedly questionable, which I believe as much as I believe that 2020 has been a rousing American success story—work behind his pads, I’m concerned.
Update, 1/1/21: Bigsby’s not playing.
And, of course, the Tigers defense presents a challenge, particularly if Northwestern is forced to drop back and pass. Hard-tackling S Jamien Sherwood (65 tackles) and a nickel corner are out for Auburn, but three different Tigers—including leading tackler and dynamic LB Zakoby McClain—have registered three sacks or more. Add to that a secondary paced by the ten pass breakups of sophomore CB Nehemiah Pritchett, the six PBUs and three picks of Roger McCreary, and the two INTs of All-Name candidate Smoke Monday, and I’m not optimistic when Peyton Ramsey is forced to drop back.
So where’s the weakness?
Well, thankfully, the ‘Cats should be able to get the run going.
Despite the departures of transfer portal-bound RBs Drake Anderson and Isaiah Bowser, the ‘Cats have seemingly settled on wrecking ball Cam Porter as their bellcow, with the 5’10”, 220# freshman arriving against Illinois and grinding out 3.8 ypc against Ohio State.
Auburn has not been great at getting off the field in a timely manner—very few busted drives and three-and-outs, and 125th on 3rd down conversion D—and Northwestern thrives when given the chance to grind out drives. If the ‘Cats nab an early score or two and Pat Fitzgerald has the chance to play for a rousing 14-7 bowl game win, look out...
...because it’ll force Auburn to take to the sky.
And thus enters the quandary of Auburn QB Bo Nix.
The Tigers have been excellent—second in the country, by one mark!—at avoiding busted drives and picking up first downs, with a 47.6% third-down conversion rate (22nd in the country). But Nix comes and goes, doesn’t read blitzes particularly well (as InsideNU showed), and isn’t the most accurate passer.
If Northwestern dials up a few blitzes or blitz looks—and DC Mike Hankwitz, looking for Win #400 in his final game as a collegiate coach, can surely provide a few of those—and remembers to account for Nix’s prolific ability as a scrambler, I like their odds.
So what happens?
Who the hell knows. The last time these two teams met on a New Year’s Day game in Florida I had a hangover from New Year’s Eve and swimming in the ocean at 2am on Clearwater Beach, then Mike Kafka and Drake Dunsmore—with an assist from Stefan Demos—broke my damn brain.
THIS is what bowl games were supposed to be?!
Thankfully Northwestern got back to its losing-er ways in my two subsequent bowls, nondescript losses to Texas Tech and Texas A&M, before ripping the metaphorical monkey to absolute fucking shreds against Mississippi State.
Where was I?
No one has any clue, and they’re lying if they tell you otherwise. Will interim HC Kevin Steele —with OC and Arkansas bust Chad Morris—just go balls to the wall with an uncertain employment future? Will Pat Fitzgerald let his crew cut down for the bowl game and try something really wacky, like punting from the Auburn 32? How many times will the ESPN crew show footage of the following?
- The 2010 Outback Bowl
- The 1997 Citrus Bowl
- Harsin sitting in the press box
- Maskless Auburn fans
- Maskless Northwestern fan
More “narrative” speaking, there’s really no winning here. If Northwestern wins, Auburn is playing with an interim head coach and, I mean, is 6-4 and somehow got into the Citrus Bowl because that Florida team really needed to be in the Cotton Bowl.
If Auburn wins, Northwestern is another trash Big Ten team sent to the South to lose to the mediocrest of the SEC. On top of that, the NoRtHwEsTeRn PLaYs UgLy FoOtBaLL crowd comes out in full force—who am I kidding, they’ll be in the comments shortly—to ignore the fact that their shitty teams can’t just shut up and beat it, pointing to Fitz’s inability to salt away football games.
There’s just no telling. So get out your bingo cards, drink away that hangover, and enjoy the stupidity of a probably-not-worldbeating Big Ten West champion scuffling with a mediocre SEC also-ran with a god complex.
It’s time for the Citrus Bowl.
Auburn 27, Northwestern 17
FOR ALL THE CITRUS
This poll is closed