Is there a better way to start a new year than by watching No. 14 Northwestern take on Auburn in the Citrus Bowl? Maybe! Like, if you woke up on New Year’s Day and then found $1 million under your couch as you sat down on it to watch Northwestern take on Auburn in the Citrus Bowl, that would be better, but that’s probably not a realistic scenario.
So I’m going to say that, no, there is nothing better than starting your year with this game. I mean, there’s just something comforting about a Big Ten team playing an SEC team in Florida on New Year’s. It’s like slipping into an old pair of shoes that fit just right.
This year’s Citrus Bowl is a rematch of the 2010 Outback Bowl. In that game, Auburn survived a late comeback by Northwestern to beat the Wildcats 38-35 in overtime. If this year’s meeting is half as entertaining as that one was, we’re in for a treat. That game also serves as the only other time in history these teams have met on a football field.
The Citrus Bowl itself is not new to either team, however. This will be Auburn’s sixth appearance in the game but first since 2003 when it beat Penn State 13-9 in what was then known as the Capital One Bowl. Auburn’s six appearances are tied with Georgia, Michigan, Florida and Penn State for most all-time. Northwestern is making its second appearance in the game. The first was a 48-28 loss to Tennessee in the 1997 Citrus Bowl. Pat Fitzgerald, who coaches Northwestern, played linebacker for the Wildcats in that game. Some guy named Peyton Manning was the quarterback for Tennessee.
Auburn: It’s been a difficult season for Auburn. The Tigers came into the 2020 season with hopes of competing for a division title and possible SEC championship. Those hopes took a severe hit in the second game of the season when the Tigers lost to rival Georgia 27-6, and two weeks later, those hopes were outright destroyed by a 30-22 loss to South Carolina — a game that would prove to be one of only two wins for the Gamecocks. Losses to Alabama and Texas A&M would follow, and a 6-4 season helped lead to Gus Malzahn’s dismissal. Kevin Steele will serve as the interim coach for the Tigers in this game, but things could prove awkward since Steele hoped to get the permanent job but Auburn decided to hire Bryan Harsin away from Boise State instead.
Northwestern: Last year at this time, Northwestern wasn’t in a bowl game. It had just finished a 3-9 season, winning only one conference game. So when coach Pat Fitzgerald said during an end-of-season press conference that the Wildcats would get things turned around and play for a Big Ten championship in 2020, you could be excused for raising an eyebrow in disbelief. Well, here we are 12 months later and Northwestern is 6-2, won the Big Ten West and played for a Big Ten championship. Sure, it lost to Ohio State 22-10 in that game, but it’s hard to argue that this season hasn’t been anything other than a resounding success for the Wildcats. It’s a team that, as usual, has been led by its defense, which makes this Citrus Bowl bittersweet. It will be the final game for long-time defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who is retiring after a long, successful career, including the last 13 seasons at Northwestern.
Game: Citrus Bowl
Date: Friday, January 1 | Time: 1 p.m. ET
Location: Camping World Stadium — Orlando, Florida
TV: ABC | Live stream: fuboTV (Try for free)
Citrus Bowl prediction, picks
When it comes to handicapping a bowl game, you have to consider a team’s motivation for playing in the game. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that Northwestern will show up ready to play in this game; that’s the way Pat Fitzgerald runs his program and how his teams treat bowl preparation. There’s also the added motivation of it being Hankwitz’s final game as defensive coordinator. I can’t say I’m confident Auburn will be all that motivated. As mentioned above, it’s a team coming off a disappointing season playing under an interim coach who wanted the full-time job and didn’t get it. Northwestern’s offense isn’t good enough to make me believe the Wildcats can run away with this game, and letting Auburn hang around could be all the motivation it needs. I do think the Wildcats cover in the end, however. Pick: Northwestern -3.5 | Northwestern 23, Auburn 17
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