MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - The Outback Bowl is quickly approaching as one of the top teams from the SEC will match up with one of the best from the Big Ten Conference on New Year’s Day.
The Auburn Tigers and Minnesota Golden Gophers have never met on the gridiron, so Wednesday’s meeting will be a first for both teams.
Both Auburn and Minnesota have had different paths to get to this point.
The Auburn football program entered its seventh season under head coach Gus Malzahn. A week-and-a-half before Auburn’s season opener against Oregon, Malzahn named true freshman Bo Nix the starting quarterback. Nix led the No. 16 Tigers back from a 15-point deficit to upset the No. 11 Ducks in the opening game of the season.
From then, Auburn soared up the rankings through the first five weeks, defeating a ranked Texas A&M team in College Station as well as blowing out Mississippi State at home. The Tigers entered a top-10 showdown with the Florida Gators back on Oct. 5, where both teams were undefeated. The No. 7 Tigers took its first loss of the season at The Swamp in Gainesville. Two weeks later they’d have another shot at knocking off another top-10 team.
Before that, the Tigers crushed Arkansas 51-10 in Fayetteville.
On the road for a third consecutive week, the Tigers now traveled to Death Valley where the No. 2 LSU Tigers awaited them. It was a close one, but one No. 9 Auburn dropped yet again, suffering its second loss of the season.
With this loss knocking the Tigers out of the Top 10 again, it would be an uphill climb to get back into the College Football Playoff conversation. But they’d get their shot weeks later inside Jordan-Hare Stadium with a No. 5 Georgia Bulldogs team coming into town. The Nov. 16 showdown was slow-paced but down 21-0 in the fourth quarter, Auburn would fight back, scoring two touchdowns in the fourth quarter and coming close to equalizing before falling short to suffer its third loss of the season.
For Auburn, the several top-10 showdowns groomed the team and built them for what was to come in the final week of the season: the Iron Bowl. With Auburn’s only home loss being to a Top 5 team, the No. 4 Alabama Crimson Tide entered looking to stay relevant to the College Football Playoff picture. Auburn, having battled three top 10 teams already, and five ranked teams total, was ready for the challenge. The Tigers played their best game of the season, defeating Alabama 48-45 and picking up their ninth victory of the season.
Nix has held his own as a freshman quarterback this season, setting new Auburn freshman quarterback marks in passing yards (2,366) and passing touchdowns (15). He’s also got another 301 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground.
At running back, the Tigers have been mostly led by JaTarvious Whitlow’s 739 rushing yards and nine rushing scores. When he’s not been able to go, it’s been freshman DJ Williams and senior Kam Martin combining for over 500 rushing yards and four touchdowns to pick up the slack.
At receiver, Seth Williams stands above all on the Auburn Tigers. Despite dealing with his fair share of injuries this season, Williams has racked in 801 receiving yards and eight receiving touchdowns for the Tigers. The next closest Auburn receiver has 397 receiving yards (Anthony Schwartz) and no more than three receiving touchdowns (Eli Stove).
The Tigers get after the ball on defense. They rank nationally towards the top in several defensive categories and have an All-American on its defensive line in Derrick Brown. But it’s not just Brown who can get after the quarterback. Senior defensive lineman Marlon Davidson gets after the opposing team’s quarterback as well.
Davidson leads the team with 7.5 sacks on the season and is virtually an unblockable force thanks to the double teams that Brown sees in the game.
On top of that, the Tigers have a guy on the backline who’s pretty good at stopping any would-be scorer looking for the end zone. That guy is Jeremiah Dinson, a senior defensive back. Dinson leads the team in tackles with 79 and has two of his team’s nine interceptions. He also has two sacks.
Auburn has been to a bowl game in every year of the Malzahn era and is looking for its third season of 10 or more wins under Malzahn, and fifth season of 10 or more wins this decade (2010, 2013, 2014, 2017). The Tigers are 2-4 under Malzahn in bowl games.
For Minnesota, things happened differently. The Golden Gophers entered year number three under head coach PJ Fleck unranked. They would not show up inside the Top 25 season until Week 8 of the season when they landed at No. 20. What they’ve done this season is make school history. For the first time since 1905, Minnesota has 10 wins in a season, and for the first time in school history, the Golden Gophers won seven games in the Big Ten Conference. All of this after beginning the season unranked.
Minnesota got as high as No. 7 in the AP Poll and No. 8 in the College Football Playoff rankings after winning its first nine games of the season.
The Golden Gophers picked up close road wins over Purdue and Fresno State, winning both games by a combined 10 points. They got big home wins over Nebraska, Maryland and No. 5 Penn State.
Minnesota is in a bowl game for the second consecutive season and for the seventh time this decade.
When looking at this Minnesota team, it’s hard to overlook the offensive weapons this team puts onto the field around quarterback Tanner Morgan. Morgan, who has 2,975 passing yards and 28 passing touchdowns, has a pair of nuclear bombs at wide receiver and another red-zone threat that makes you aware of all things at all times.
Combined, Rashad Bateman (1,170 yards and 11 touchdowns) and Tyler Johnson (1,114 yards and 11 touchdowns) combine for 2,284 receiving yards and 22 touchdown receptions. Their third receiver is Chris Autman-Bell, who has just 364 receiving yards but has caught six touchdown passes.
In the backfield, the Golden Gophers have a thousand-yard back in Rodney Smith (1,094 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns). Behind him are two backs who combine for 872 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns. They are Mohamed Ibrahim (464 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns) and Shannon Brooks (408 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns).
All are weapons for the Auburn defense - who enters as one of the top defenses in the nation giving up just 18.6 points per game - to be aware of.
On the defensive side of the ball, just like Auburn has Jeremiah Dinson in the secondary, the Minnesota defense also has a leader on the back end. His name is Antoine Winfield Jr., and wherever he is, that’s where Auburn quarterback Bo Nix better make sure he’s not throwing the ball. Minnesota has 14 interceptions as a team, Winfield has seven of them to go along with 83 total tackles and 3.5 sacks as a redshirt sophomore.
Auburn and Minnesota kick off at noon on New Year’s Day.