Examining the Matchup, Part II
AUBURN vs. NORTHWESTERN
When: Friday, 10 a.m.
Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
Line: Auburn by 7.5
On the air: TV – ESPN. Radio — WLWI-FM 92.3, WMSP-AM 740
FOUR DOWN TERRITORY
1. Few believed Auburn would qualify for a meaningful bowl after losing its final two regular-season games. Circumstance (six Southeastern Conference teams finished with 7-5 records) and some good salesmanship from athletic director Jay Jacobs helped the Tigers seize an important opportunity. Coach Gene Chizik now has guided what appeared to be a struggling program into a New Year's Day bowl, which has to be considered a successful first season. Auburn administrators played a major role, but Gus Malzahn's offense and the players running it gave the Tigers an engaging, distinguishing characteristic.
2. Onterio McCalebb's first college season changed for good in September when he injured his left ankle during a fake punt. He spent the next two months trying to run without pain. It didn't happen. Without McCalebb, one of the team's fastest players, the running game dipped from epic to strong. Six weeks of treatment and relatively light training have given McCalebb confidence that his troublesome ankle no longer is an issue. If he's fully healthy in Tampa, Northwestern could be in for a long afternoon.
3. Ted Roof saved his best for last, devising a brilliant defensive scheme to slow Alabama's rushing attack. A dedication toward controlling gaps undermined the Crimson Tide's zone-blocking tricks and provided clear affirmation that Roof knows what he's doing. Was that a one-time deal? Roof will have Eltoro Freeman back on the strong side and his remaining starters, fatigued to the max after working 60 or more snaps per week during the fall, are as rested as ever. Auburn's defense wasn't very good this year. A strong defensive performance in Tampa should prompt fans to knock their 2010 expectations up a notch.
4. Chizik wasn't exactly a popular choice when named head coach last December. Yet the Tigers beat expectations by winning seven games and now have a chance to win eight. Players seem revitalized. Recruiting has gone well. Fans have been pleasantly surprised by the team's renaissance. Bowl games typically are considered hyped exhibitions, but Auburn isn't taking this one lightly. A program that markets itself as an up-and-comer needs to demonstrate that guile in Tampa. If the Tigers beat Northwestern, analysts across the nation will begin picking Auburn as an SEC contender this summer. Not bad for a coach who went 5-19 at Iowa State, no?
Auburn DE Antonio Coleman vs. Northwestern OT Al Netter
Coleman's season was bisected by a wrist injury that cut his production during October. He rebounded furiously in November and emerged as an NFL-caliber playmaker. That wasn't enough. Coleman, now six weeks after the cast was removed from his right wrist, is ready to prove his worthiness. It's almost money time. He'll be going against Netter, an accomplished tackle, in many of the difficult situations today. Netter is a sophomore who started all 12 games this season and showed consistency throughout. He's used to tough assignments. Still, Coleman may be the most difficult challenge of the season. If Netter isn't able to keep pace with Coleman's speed rush, quarterback Mike Kafka and the Wildcats' passing game will suffer. Northwestern desperately needs its passing game to function well today.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
LB, 5-11, 220, Soph.
Freeman's first year with the Tigers has been a disappointment. He struggled to earn playing time out of fall camp. Once he cracked the starting lineup, he was productive just long enough to feel comfortable before suffering an injury against Georgia. Freeman didn't play against Alabama. When healthy and focused, Freeman is a run-stopping terror. He's fearless. He hits with authority. He has enough talent to undermine Northwestern's run-game plans. Freeman so badly wants to be an every-down contributor and, to this point, he hasn't been that guy. Today could give fans -- and the linebacker himself -- a taste of what is to come during the next two years.
BY THE NUMBERS
-14 -- Auburn's fourth-quarter scoring margin this season
5.0 -- Yards per carry for Auburn this season, its highest average since 1986.
13 -- Auburn's rank among FBS programs in rushing offense this season
25 -- Fumbles by Auburn this season
41 -- Auburn's first-quarter scoring margin
50 -- Touchdowns scored by Auburn this season, double its 2008 output
80 -- Auburn's rank among FBS programs in rushing defense this season
323 -- Points allowed by Auburn this season, the most in school history.
You know Auburn is a difficult team to predict. This group will play really well at times. Then it'll unravel. The degree of that unraveling determines Auburn's end-of-the-day fate and, honestly, that's a difficult thing to assess ahead of time. The Tigers look good to me. I sense a thirst for postseason excellence that hasn't existed at Auburn since the 2005 Sugar Bowl. This offense has certified its authenticity time and again. We all know Auburn will score. The question is if Auburn can stop the other team from scoring. Northwestern has a good team, but its strength is defense. The running game simply isn't there and Auburn loves hearing that. You know why.
Auburn 35, Northwestern 17