Examining the Matchup
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MATCHUP: Auburn run offense vs. Northwestern run defense
Gene Chizik promised an offense that was built to run and he didn't falter, watching his team average 214 rushing yards per game. The figurehead is tailback Ben Tate, who emerged as one of the Southeastern Conference's top players with a best-case scenario season.
He enjoyed good health, consistent blocking and finished with 1,254 yards. Not bad.
Onterio McCalebb provides an ideal complement when healthy. He was troubled during the final third of the season with a chronic ankle problem, but coaches believe six additional weeks of treatment will give McCalebb the ability to cut inside while moving to his left for the first time in three months.
Northwestern isn't poor against the run by any means. Surviving in the Big 10 Conference requires toughness up front and the Wildcats have plenty with linebackers Quentin Davie and Nate Williams.
They conceded 212 yards to Illinois in mid-November, which was alarming, but held run-prone Wisconsin to a season-low 99 yards a week later.
Still, this is where Auburn thrives. It should continue that trend in Tampa.
MATCHUP: Northwestern run offense vs. Auburn run defense
Is that right? Auburn gets a defensive advantage?
The truth is that fatigue messed with the Tigers' defense more than anything. A thin depth chart was taxed when starters were asked to play at least 60 snaps every week. That left defensive coordinator Ted Roof looking for ways to fix an unfixable problem.
Auburn's defense played well against Alabama, providing a clear affirmation that Roof has the ability to scheme opponents. Now he has a defense that is healthy and rested for the first time since early September.
The Wildcats are committed to offensive balance, but that doesn't mean it’s a healthy thing. Quarterback Mike Kafka earns more carries than anyone on his team. While he's a fine runner for a quarterback, he's not a big-play threat.
Northwestern doesn't have any. Coach Pat Fitzgerald rotates several tailbacks into featured roles, but none have distinguished themselves. The team averages 3.1 yards per rush.
Auburn averages 5.
MATCHUP: Auburn passing offense vs. Northwestern pass defense
Chris Todd has enjoyed a fine senior season. He's made plenty of good decisions and, in the end, has been at least a serviceable option for offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn.
He is not a game-breaking element.
In fact, it's now obvious how serious Malzahn is about featuring the run. Auburn dedicated 61 percent of its plays toward the ground game this season. That's not necessarily a knock on Todd -- he finished with 21 touchdown passes, after all -- but passing is a surprisingly peripheral part of the Tigers' offensive personality.
Northwestern has the pieces to undermine Todd. Four players have at least a pair of picks this season -- Walt McFadden is Auburn's only multi-interception player -- and the pass rush is at least ample.
Defensive end Corey Wootten, who struggled with knee and ankle injuries for most of the season, is expected to be fully healthy in Tampa. He was an outstanding rusher throughout the 2008 season and knows this game provides an opportunity to silence doubters.
Northwestern conceded yards during the regular season, but some of that was due to Fitzgerald's willingness to take chances. Will that be enough to confuse Todd? My guess is yes.
MATCHUP: Northwestern pass offense vs. Auburn pass defense
Mike Kafka is a very good quarterback.
He isn't remarkably powerful. He's not particularly fast. What makes Kafka so valuable is that he brings life to the Wildcats' offense. The senior understands Northwestern's short-pass system and makes it work without many snags.
He's accurate. He doesn't make many mistakes.
Kafka also has enough guile to add another dimension to the team's rushing attack. He finished the season with 465 rushing yards, but yardage lost due to sacks -- he was hit behind the line 25 times this season -- dramatically diminished Kafka's overall numbers. Still, that duality affects opposing defenses. Simply put, Kafka is a threat to do anything at any moment.
Auburn pass defense isn't remarkable. McFadden provides good coverage at cornerback, but the Tigers are inexperienced at safety. The team's other cornerback, Neiko Thorpe, was bust-prone in October and November.
If Antonio Coleman and Antoine Carter can generate pressure along the edge, Kafka could be marginalized. That has happened more often that expected; Northwestern has allowed 29 sacks this season.
MATCHUP: Special teams
Auburn's work on special teams hasn't exactly been memorable, but there have been bright spots. Kicker Wes Byrum doesn't get the recognition he deserves for hitting 14 of his 15 attempts this season.
His only miss was a 46-yarder at Tennessee.
Demond Washington also looks like a find on kickoff return. His touchdown against Georgia was memorable. Who knew he had that much speed?
Auburn's coverage teams are putrid.
Northwestern is a little better with its coverages, but the difference is nominal. Both teams have terrible punt-return groups. It's hard to find teams that even approach Auburn's 4.5 yards per punt return, but the Wildcats clock in at 6.6.
It comes down to Byrum and Northwestern's Stefan Demos, who is an average kicker and a below-average punter.
Chizik has been a surprise.
It's difficult to know how much influence he has on the things we all see on game day. Coaches don't talk about it. Chizik certainly doesn't talk about it. One thing is clear: Auburn's staff works together well.
The offense has been much better than expected. Aside from missteps against Kentucky and LSU, things have progress. The defense is troubled, no doubt, but Roof doesn't appear to be the problem. He needs more players.
Special teams have been an issue, but even that problem seems to be less critical these days.
Northwestern has improved under Fitzgerald, who played linebacker for the Wildcats' 1995 Rose Bowl team. They're sound on defense and don't rely on trickery to compete despite rigorous academic standards akin to Vanderbilt.
Still, Auburn has a remarkable offense.
That's a big reason why the Outback Bowl selected Auburn. This offense is unique in some ways, generates plenty of yards and excitement.
Both of these programs consider themselves on the upswing. Northwestern has been a bottom-half team in its league for generations, but has gained the ability to become competitive more often.
Auburn bottomed out last season. Chizik and his staff have changed almost everything about the program and created an excitement that hasn't existed since 2004. Though the team's record is only two wins better than a year ago, there's a sense that the Tigers are on the cusp of bigger achievements.
Is it real? Is it hype?
A win in Tampa could provide more meaningful data. Players are surprisingly eager to consolidate progress they believe was made in losses to Georgia and Alabama. They're looking at this game as a way to re-establish national credibility.
Northwestern is a pretty good team in a pretty good league.
Auburn believes it's better than that.
The SEC has the best defenses around.
NFL rosters tell the story. They're loaded with guys from this league because it produces more professional-grade defenders than any league.
Auburn's offense has broken through against several SEC defenses this season. It's legitimate.
Northwestern ended its season with better defensive numbers, but Auburn may be different now. A strong performance against Alabama seemed to demonstrate significant improvement and the addition of outside linebacker Eltoro Freeman, who was out with two injuries, will give the Tigers more power in Tampa.
Auburn really wants this game.
Its offense is most outstanding element of this game.
Ben Tate is the best offensive player in this game.
Antonio Coleman is the best defensive player in this game. Auburn has plenty of advantages. Now the question becomes: Can it capitalize?
My guess is yes.