What a season it has been for the Northwestern Wildcats. After a 5-0 start to Big Ten play and a Big Ten West crown, the No. 14 Wildcats (6-2 B1G) will head to Orlando for a Citrus Bowl date with the unranked Auburn Tigers (6-4 SEC) on New Year’s Day to wrap up the 2020 campaign.
Bo Nix vs Mike Hankwitz’s Defense
One of the most intriguing matchups on Friday will be Northwestern’s defense versus Auburn’s sophomore quarterback Bo Nix and the Tiger offense. Northwestern has certainly had a season to remember, allowing just 15.5 points a game. They will likely look to continue this stretch in this last performance.
Northwestern will be led on the defensive front by the senior linebacking trio of Chris Bergin, Blake Gallagher and the Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year, Paddy Fisher. They’ll also be backed by the All-American defensive back Brandon Joseph but will miss their best pass defender in Greg Newsome, who will be sitting out the game with a groin injury and has declared for the 2021 NFL Draft.
For the Tiger offense, Nix will likely be performing shorthanded, as the team’s top receiver, junior Anthony Schwartz, has opted out of the game. Leading rusher Tank Bigsby may also be sitting out, but no confirmation has been given. As a result, all eyes will be on Nix as he tries to put the exclamation point on a so-so season.
Nix has underperformed this season, but fans should not forget he remains one of the most talented QBs in College Football. He led the Tigers to a 9-4 record in a stacked SEC last season and even outdueled Mac Jones and Alabama in the Iron Bowl. Nix is also a very mobile QB as well, something that should give ’Cats a headache, as they’ve struggled with run defense this season. The Wildcats have also struggled against vulnerable QBs (Rocky Lombardi anyone?), so the biggest question marks will be how the Wildcats will handle Nix, and especially how the Tigers will choose to utilize him.
While this matchup should be concerning to Wildcats fans, the 'Cats have shown their ability to shut down opposing offenses for large chunks of time, especially in the second half. Auburn should still have their share of troubles against the Northwestern defense.
The Citrus Bowl is one of the “better” bowl games that the program has been selected to since Pat Fitzgerald took over as head coach, but there’s also personal motivation for the ’Cats. After 51 seasons, Northwestern defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz announced that this will be his last season, making the Citrus Bowl his final career game. The team has emphasized their desire to get him his 400th career win this season, and Friday will be their final opportunity to do so.
On the other hand, this season was a bit of a letdown for the Auburn Tigers. As a top-tier SEC program, anything short of a National Championship is a let down, so a Citrus Bowl berth is likely not what they expected this season. Furthermore, it’s hard to know what’s happening within the Auburn program behind closed doors, as the program fired their head coach halfway through the season. Interim head coach Kevin Steele will be running the operation in Orlando, while Bryce Harsin, their new hire, will be watching from a suite. So is the coaching staff really focused on Northwestern, or are they worried about finding jobs and transitioning to Harsin’s new staff?
All in all, there are clearly questions on both sides, but it’s hard to not give the motivational advantage to the Wildcats.
Gameday in Orlando
The Wildcats will leave the Midwest for the first time this week when they face Auburn. Temperatures in Orlando are poised to be in the mid to high 80s, humidity will be higher than the worst midsummer Chicago day, fans will be in the stands, and the game will be played in the Southeast, significantly closer to Auburn’s campus. These conditions seem familiar for the Tigers but not so much for the Wildcats, so it will be interesting to see how this game day environment impacts both teams.
Regardless, the Cats have worked for this all season, and with Hankwitz’s 400th on the line, it’s hard to pick against Northwestern in this one. It'll be a fun time in Orlando.