The Minnesota Golden Gophers will face the Auburn Tigers in the 2020 Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day. Minnesota finished the season a surprising 10-2 (I had predicted 8-4), losing to Iowa and Wisconsin but upsetting then-#4 Penn State. Auburn has possibly the most respectable 9-3 record in history, with losses to #10 Florida in Gainesville, #2 LSU in Baton Rouge, and #4 Georgia.
When Minnesota Passes
Sophomore quarterback Tanner Morgan ranks 18th in the country in completion percentage. He’s thrown for 2,975 yards this season, with 28 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He has, however, been sacked 30 times. The offensive line did improve as the season went on; Morgan stayed upright far more often through the last six games than through the first six. Still, Auburn could improve on their 2.33 sacks per game average.
Tyler Johnson is far and away the Gophers’ top receiver. He and #2 wideout Rashod Bateman finished the season with 1,114 and 1,170 yards respectively, and 11 touchdowns each- this despite the fact that one or both of them is frequently drawing two defenders. Chris Autman-Bell (374 yards, five TDs) is another reliable target.
When Minnesota Runs
Sixth-year senior Rodney Smith leads the Gophers in rushing with 1,094 yards and eight touchdowns. Standout sophomore Mohamed Ibrahim, who had a stellar bowl game a year ago, is second with 464 yards and six touchdowns. Ibrahim missed several games this year with a foot injury. There’s also senior Shannon Brooks (408 yards, two touchdowns) and quarterback-turned-receiver-turned-wildcat quarterback Seth Green. The Gophers often turn to Green as the wildcat quarterback inside the ten yards line, resulting in five rushing touchdowns for him.
Auburn’s Derrick Brown could cause a big problem for the Gophers’ run game in the Outback Bowl. The 6’5″, 318 lb. senior is the top defensive tackle in this year’s NFL draft, according to ESPN’s Todd McShay. Brown has 50 total tackles, four sacks, and two forced fumbles this season. Look for the Gophers to bounce runs to the outside, rather than taking on Brown.
When Auburn Passes
The Tigers have a freshman quarterback this year in Bo Nix. Perhaps not surprisingly, they don’t have a 1,000-yard receiver. Seth Williams leads the team with 801 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s one of nine players on the roster with at least one touchdown catch.
For a true freshman, Nix’s stats are respectable. He’s completing 57% of his passes, with 2,366 yards, 15 touchdowns, and six picks. He’s been sacked just 15 times, which means a) Auburn has a good offensive line, and b) Nix isn’t holding onto the ball too long.
What I’m most interested to see in the Outback Bowl is whether Auburn dares throw the ball anywhere near Antoine Winfield Jr. Can the Gophers disguise their coverages to bait Nix into doing so?
When Auburn Runs
Auburn doesn’t have a 1,000-yard rusher, but they have five players over 200 yards, including Nix. JaTarvious Whitlow leads the team with 739 yards and nine scores on the ground. Another eight players have at least one of the Tigers’ 30 rushing touchdowns, led by Nix with seven. This game will be a true test for the 29th-ranked run defense of the Gophers. Making it more difficult will be the absence of senior linebacker Kamal Martin, who was injured late in the season and is (understandably) missing the bowl game to focus on rehab and draft prep.
Strength vs. Strength
Keep an eye on the red zone. Minnesota is tied for 17th in the country in red zone offense, coming away with points (40 TDs, 10 field goals) on 50 of 55 attempts. However, Auburn has the 9th-stingiest red zone defense, allowing 18 touchdowns and seven field goals on just 35 tries.
Both teams have had issues in the kicking game this season. Freshman Michael Lantz has made 70% of his field goals and 43 of 45 extra points. Auburn’s Anders Carlson is 17 of 24 on field goals and has converted all but one of his 46 PATs. Both teams rank in the middle of the pack in kick returns, although Auburn is strong returning punts.
The 2020 Outback Bowl: In Summary
Minnesota garnered much-deserved national attention and surprised a lot of people this season. Auburn has about as good a three-loss record as you’ll find in college football. This should be a very entertaining game, and a closer one than SEC fans want to think.(For an in-depth x’s and o’s look at the 2020 Outback Bowl, Daniel House of Gopher Hole has you covered here).
My 2020 Outback Bowl prediction: Auburn 31, Minnesota 27