As usual, the Outback Bowl will be the first college football game of the new year. This year’s game features the no. 12 Auburn Tigers of the SEC and the no. 18 Minnesota Golden Gophers of the Big Ten. The game will kick off at 1:00 EST on Wednesday, January 1 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. Fans can catch all of the action on ESPN.
Current odds have Auburn favored by 7.5 points with an over/under of 52.5 points. Click here for a full bowl schedule and betting odds for every game.
For Minnesota, this was nothing short of a dream season. There were modest expectations for the Golden Gophers heading into the season. But after surviving a few close games during the non-conference season, Minnesota started the year 9-0, climbing as high as no. 8 in the College Football Playoff rankings. Late-season losses to Iowa and Wisconsin kept the Gophers from the Big Ten title game. But P.J. Fleck and company are no doubt ecstatic with their 10-2 season.
The Golden Gophers are now going to a bowl game for the second straight year and the sixth time in the last seven years. After suffering through a 7-game bowl losing streak during the early part of the 21st century, Minnesota has now won three straight bowl games. That stretch includes a 34-10 win over Georgia Tech in last season’s Quick Lane Bowl.
Meanwhile, Auburn is arguably one of the best teams in the country not in the College Football Playoff. The Tigers went 9-3, with their only losses coming against Florida, LSU, and Georgia. During the season, Auburn also scored wins over the likes of Oregon and Alabama, as well as four other teams playing in a bowl game.
Under Gus Malzahn, Auburn is playing in a bowl game for the seventh straight year. Unfortunately for the Tigers, they are just 2-4 in bowls under Malzahn, including a loss in the national championship game in 2013 and a loss to Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl the following year. On the bright side, the Tigers crushed Big Ten opponent Purdue 63-14 in last year’s Music City Bowl.
When it comes to the Outback Bowl, I almost always side with the SEC team. This game always seems to be a litmus test for both the SEC and Big Ten, and I always seem to view the SEC as the stronger league. While Minnesota had a great year and was a great story, I think Auburn is at least 10 points better, pushing me to pick the Tigers to win and cover.
The thing that surprised me the most about Minnesota’s success this season is that they didn’t have the explosive rushing attack usually associated with Fleck’s teams. Senior Rodney Smith eventually got going and went over 1,000 yards on the season. But as a team, the Gophers were barely over four yards per carry on the season. They also struggled to establish the run against some of the better defensive teams they faced. That was the case in losses to Iowa and Wisconsin and could be a problem against the Tigers.
Auburn’s defensive line was one of the best in the country this season. Like most top-tier SEC teams over the years, the Tigers have elite athletes in the trenches, often giving them a distinct advantage in non-conference games. Despite a couple of lapses, the Auburn defense was dependable this year when it came to stopping the run. In fact, it was one of the biggest reasons they were able to come from behind in their season opener against Oregon. It’s also why I think they’ll be able to handle Minnesota.
Knowing the Golden Gophers struggled to run the ball against Iowa and Wisconsin, there’s likely to be a lot of pressure on quarterback Tanner Morgan. To be fair, Morgan put together an outstanding season, nearly throwing for 3,000 yards with 28 touchdowns compared to just six interceptions. I have no doubt that he’s capable of having another big game against Auburn. But if the Gophers struggle to run the ball, I’m not sure Morgan can carry the Minnesota offense all day. Keep in mind he was sacked a combined 11 times against Iowa and Wisconsin, which is a problem that could pop up against Auburn.
On the other side of the ball, Auburn’s offense is a little more balanced and a little more potent. The Tigers rushed for over 200 yards per game, doing so against a more challenging schedule than the one Minnesota faced. True freshman quarterback Bo Nix also made meaningful strides over the course of the season. He was able to limit his sacks and turnovers late in the season, allowing his supporting cast to do the heavy lifting. That kind of formula should work against a Minnesota defense that dominated weaker teams in the middle of the season but looked a little more vulnerable late in the year.
In the end, I still don’t think Minnesota is on Auburn’s level, despite an impressive season. Keep in mind the Gophers only played five bowl teams this year, going 3-2 in those games. Auburn, meanwhile, went 6-3 against bowl-eligible teams and was competitive in every loss. Over 60 minutes, the Tigers will prove to be the better team, pulling away late to cover the 7.5-point spread.