College football fans will be getting a unique match-up to kick-off 2021. The Auburn Tigers and the Northwestern Wildcats will square off in Orlando, Florida in the 2021 Citrus Bowl that will be televised nationally on ABC at 1 p.m. Eastern. These are two programs that have not played each other much on the gridiron. In fact, this will be just their second only ever meeting. The first match-up occurred in the 2010 Outback Bowl that was won by Auburn 38-35 in a wild game. This one could turn out to be another close game between the two programs.
2021 Citrus Bowl Preview
Drama on the Plains
It has been a drama-filled few weeks since December 12th when the Auburn Tigers last played a football game when they defeated Mississippi State 24-10. The day after the win, the university announced they were firing Gus Malzahn and taking the program in a different direction. After ten days of speculation, fan outcry, and surprises Auburn did announce the hiring of Bryan Harsin on December 22nd. For this game, defensive coordinator Kevin Steele is the interim head coach.
Inconsistency on Both Sides
Auburn comes into the game with a rather disappointing 6-4 season. Auburn lost to each of the top-ranked teams they played this season in Georgia, Alabama, and Texas A&M. The Tigers just were not able to find any consistency this season on either side of the ball.
Sophomore quarterback Bo Nix was unable to take that next step after winning SEC Freshman of the Year in 2019. And the issues with the offensive line continued. All the offensive issues are one of the reasons for the dismissal of Malzahn. A bright spot this season was the emergence of co-SEC Freshman of the Year, Tank Bigsby. Tank finished fifth in the SEC with 834 yards and scored five touchdowns. If it were not for an injury sustained against Tennessee late in the season, those numbers could have been higher.
Just like the offense, the defense was inconsistent this season as well. Kevin Steele and staff had the tough task of replacing Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson on the defensive front. Their absence has been felt as Auburn struggled mightily against the run this season. They finished eighth in the SEC allowing 163.1 yards per game on the ground. Another factor that contributed to that was losing linebackers K.J. Britt (thumb injury), and Chandler Wooten (preseason opt-out). That hurt the depth of what was to be the strength of the team heading into the season. The secondary was solid this season though. The unit is led by cornerback Roger McCreary and was third in allowing just 237.8 passing yards per game.
Consistency with Fitzgerald
While Auburn is in the midst of a coaching change and has been the model of inconsistency, the opposite can be said for the Northwestern Wildcats. Northwestern enters the Citrus Bowl with a 6-2 mark and is led by head coach Pat Fitzgerald who is in his 15th season with the team. This will be the tenth bowl appearance for Northwestern under Fitzgerald, and they are 4-5 in those games.
The Wildcat Defense
This team is led by their defense. They rank first in the Big Ten with only allowing 15.5 points per game, and fourth in yards allowed (338.8). The Wildcats have been excellent against the pass only giving up 182.3 yards per game, and that showed in their 22-10 loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game. This unit gave quarterback Justin Fields trouble throughout that game intercepting him twice and only allowing 114 yards. The secondary is led by freshman Brandon Joseph and his conference-leading six interceptions on the season.
The Wildcats did have issues against the run this season though, and that was also on display in the Big Ten Championship. Ohio State running back Trey Sermon rushed for 331 yards and two scores in the game. On the season, Northwestern gave up an average of 156.5 on the ground. In their other loss against Michigan State, they gave up 195 yards rushing in the 29-20 win for the Spartans.
On offense, it is a more balanced attack that was ranked near the bottom in the Big Ten with just 348.6 yards per game. Quarterback Peyton Ramsey is fifth in the conference with 1,442 passing yards with nine touchdowns. In the run game, they have used more than one running back. They are led by Drake Anderson with 256 yards but have also featured Cam Porter and Isaiah Bowser as well.
Auburn Players to Opt-Out
According to a report from AL.com’s Matt Zenitz, it is expected that safety Jamien Sherwood, receiver Anthony Schwartz, and defensive back Christian Tutt will not play due to opting out. Losing Schwartz could be a huge blow for the Tigers due to his big-play ability at any moment in the game.
2021 Citrus Bowl Prediction
Do not expect to see many points in this game on Friday. This should be a low scoring game between two offenses that have seen struggles this season. The difference in the game could be the play of Tank Bigsby. The freshman should be healthy for the first team since mid-November, and his breakaway ability could translate into a timely score at some point in the game. If that does not happen, the Wildcats could win this one easily. With that being said, Auburn finds a way and wins 16-13.