After disappointing conference finishes, both the No. 17 Wisconsin Badgers (10-3, 7-1 Big Ten) and No. 19 Auburn Tigers (8-4, 4-4 SEC) are in search of redemption when they meet in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day. The Tigers closed out their SEC schedule with three losses in their last four games, and the Badgers suffered a crushing 59-0 blowout in the Big Ten title game to Ohio State.
Auburn entered the 2014 season ranked No. 6, while Wisconsin ranked No. 14. The Tigers would eventually climb to No. 2 with a 5-0 record before faltering under the weight of the SEC in the second half of the season. Wisconsin bounced back after two losses in their first five games to win seven in a row to climb to No. 13. The Buckeyes were too much for Badgers, scoring a touchdown on the first drive, and posting a 38-0 score by halftime.
It was a difficult way to end a season for two schools that showed promising signs. But both Auburn’s Guz Malzahn and interim Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez see Thursday night’s matchup at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, as an opportunity for the future.
"It's very important the way the players and coaches look at the bowl, no matter what bowl it is, it's very important," Malzahn said to AL.com. "The extra practice time, especially for your young guys, is very important."
Despite a fourth place finish in the SEC West standings and failing to post a double-digit win total in back-to-back seasons, Auburn has plenty to feel good about heading into next year. For one, two of their losses were against teams ranked in the top three in the country and another was to a ranked and talent-rich Georgia squad. The Tigers also counted solid wins over ranked Kansas State and Ole Miss, and even helped derail LSU’s title hopes five games into the season.
Quarterback Nick Marshall and running back Cameron Artis-Payne, both seniors, will play their final collegiate games on Thursday, but Malzahn will have freshman rusher Roc Thomas on the roster in 2015, as well as top running back recruit Jovon Robinson. Linebacker Cassanova McKinzy, who leads the Tigers in sacks, may return for his senior year in 2015, and the defense has star sophomore defensive back Johnathan Ford set to come back.
It will be a fresh start in Madison in 2015. Former Pittsburgh head coach Paul Chryst will take over as Wisconsin's head coach next season, replacing Gary Anderson, who filled the head-coaching vacancy at Oregon State in December. Chryst inherits a solid group of Badgers that includes experienced junior quarterback Joel Stave, and sophomore running back Corey Clement, who figures to receive a bulk of the carries with Melvin Gordon expected to forgoe his senior season to enter the NFL Draft.
There’s also top defensive back Sojourn Shelton, a sophomore who led the team with four interceptions and 11 passes defended, on the nation’s No. 16-ranked defense.
Right up until the crushing date with Ohio State, Gordon destroyed all comers with 2,336 yards and 26 touchdowns this season. The matchup against the Tigers middling rushing defense will be the last time Gordon can impress scouts in a real game, and could play a huge role in where he’s selected should he enter next spring’s draft.
Auburn allowed 149.5 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns this season, the eighth best mark in the SEC.
Prediction: Wisconsin over Auburn, 31-27