Minnesota is headed to its second bowl game in as many years when the Golden Gophers take on the Auburn Tigers in the Outback Bowl on Wednesday from Tampa, Fla.
Auburn is currently ranked No. 12 while Minnesota comes in at No. 18. The Gophers fell in their final regular-season game to Wisconsin a month ago at home, while Auburn upset Alabama in its final regular-season game to hand the Crimson Tide their second loss all season.
How do the teams stack up prior to their matchup in Tampa?
Both offenses have averaged 34 points per game, while Minnesota has scored 412 to Auburn’s 408 overall.
Beginning with the rushing game, Minnesota has the better overall numbers through the first three backs. Senior Rodney Smith dominated with more than 1,000 yards this season while fellow senior Shannon Brooks and sophomore Mohamed Ibrahim rushed for just over 400 yards each.
For Auburn, sophomore JaTarvious Whitlow had 739 yards as the leading rusher for the Tigers. Behind him, freshman D.J. Williams and senior Kam Martin had 387 and 332 yards, respectively this season.
After that, Auburn is deeper than the first three running backs. Quarterback Bo Nix had 301 yards on the ground this season, while three players beneath him on the stat chart had more than 100 yards rushing this season, including one with more than 250. After Brooks for Minnesota with 408 yards, the bottom drops out with Wildcat specialist Seth Green at 92 yards.
Speaking of Nix, his rushing prowess certainly gives him the advantage in that category over Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan, who had minus-59 net rushing yards this season. Nix also has more completions and passing attempts than Morgan, but that’s where Nix’s advantage as a passer end.
Morgan threw for 28 touchdowns this season while Nix had just 15. Morgan averaged nearly 250 yards per game, more than 50 yards per game more than Nix. Also, Morgan’s completion percentage was 10 points higher than Nix.
This is evident that Morgan is a good passer, but also indicative of his exceptionally talented receivers making plays. While sophomore Seth Williams led the Tigers with 801 receiving yards and eight touchdowns this season, that didn’t come close to Minnesota’s top duo of sophomore Rashod Bateman and senior Tyler Johnson.
Both Bateman and Johnson had more than 1,100 yards this season and each had 11 touchdowns. Those two will look to be difference-makers in the game as one of the clear turning points for Minnesota’s offense.
One disadvantage to Minnesota, though, is the shakeup at offensive coordinator. Kirk Ciarrocca, the Gophers’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks’ coach of three years since head coach P.J. Fleck’s arrival, left his position at Minnesota to take the same role at fellow Big Ten school, Penn State. Without a permanent replacement in place, it may be business as usual for the offense, but it also could be interesting without the guru behind the system at the game.
Auburn’s defense has a pair of front-end players with more than 12 tackles for loss, with one, Marlon Davidson, grabbing more than seven sacks and another, Derrick Brown with four.
Senior Jeremiah Dinson led the team with 79 tackles this season. He also was tied for the team lead with two interceptions, contributing to the team’s total of nine.
Minnesota’s defense is led by Antoine Winfield Jr., who could be playing his last game for the Gophers before declaring for the NFL draft. He has 83 tackles this season and seven interceptions with three sacks, for good measure.
Senior Carter Coughlin is Minnesota’s premier edge rusher and leads the team with 9.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. The true test of the Gophers strength up the middle will be with the linebackers. Seniors Thomas Barber and Kamal Martin have been one of the strong points of the defense through the season, but Martin will not be playing because he wants to rest and train for the NFL combine.
Martin’s presence will be missed, but it will be a good chance to see the most counted on linebackers for next season while both Martin and Barber depart.
The point spread is hanging around 7, with Minnesota as the underdog. The victory against Alabama and a close game against No. 1 LSU earlier in the season make a good case for Auburn being favored, but Minnesota still has a very legitimate chance to win the game.
The offensive dominance on display for nearly all of the season is a reason for fans to be optimistic, as well as the consistency on defense the Gophers have seen all season. The question will be can they stay up with such a formidable opponent, considering they went 1-2 against ranked teams this season.