Kevin Steele

Kevin Steele Auburn Football practice on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2019 in Auburn, Ala. Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics

With Auburn just outside the Top 25 in the coaches football poll this week, the Tigers will have a chance to finish their season back in the rankings if they can defeat their bowl opponent. However, that task will likely be a challenging one.

Northwestern, which is ranked 13th, will show up in Orlando for the New Year’s Day VRBO Citrus Bowl matchup bringing a physical team that will likely be motivated to put a whipping on the Tigers. That will start at the top.

I remember how irritated Coach Pat Fitzgerald was the last time I saw him in person. It was tough to do, but his team found a way to lose to Auburn 38-35 in overtime at the Outback Bowl to close the 2009 season.

Auburn probably didn’t take the Wildcats seriously enough and almost paid for it. Northwestern put up seldom-seen numbers vs. the Auburn defense. The Wildcats ran 115 plays. They finished with 621 yards and 34 first downs. Those are the worst performances in each category by Auburn in its bowl history, which includes 44 games. 

Fitzgerald, an All-American linebacker during his playing days at Northwestern, will be thrilled if he can help his alma mater win in Orlando. It is a big deal for any Big Ten team to beat an opponent from the SEC. 

If the Wildcats need any extra motivation, it is available. The Citrus Bowl matchup will be the final game for Northwestern’s highly respected defensive coordinator, Mike Hankwitz, who is retiring at the end of this season. He is going out in style with the Wildcats ranked fifth nationally for fewest points allowed at 15.5 per game. It is the best among teams in the Power-5 conferences.

The Wildcats, who are 6-2 after losing to Ohio State 22-10 in the Big Ten Championship Game last Saturday, have allowed only seven touchdown passes this year while coming up with 14 interceptions. Scoring on the ground has been tough, too, with Northwestern’s opponents doing it just four times.

Northwestern’s players were on-campus in Evanston, a suburb of Chicago, when the bowl bids were announced on Sunday. They were able to immediately begin preparations to play Auburn, whose players headed home after their win at Mississippi State to close the regular season on Dec. 12.

Auburn’s plan is to reassemble on Saturday and hopefully do it without losing players to the Covid protocols, which seems unlikely with the Tigers being outside their team bubble for two weeks. 

Throw in the fact that there is uncertainty getting ready to play a game in the  middle of a coaching search to find a new leader for the program and it is easy to see why Auburn will arrive in Orlando as the underdog in this game.

Although discussion of Auburn’s search to replace Gus Malzahn has been a big topic of discussion, Kevin Greene’s many friends in the Auburn Family will remember Christmas week as the time they lost the former Tiger star. He died way too young at age 58.

Greene, who came to Auburn as an ROTC student, lived the most spectacular walk-on story in program history. By the time he was a senior playing for Coach Pat Dye’s Tigers, he became SEC Defensive Player of the Year in 1984. After 15 impressive seasons in the NFL, he joined old-timer Frank Gatski in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, doubling Auburn’s representation.

Greene’s position coach at Auburn, Joe Whitt, coached a lot of outstanding defensive players. He correctly mentioned that the superb pass rusher won fame and fortune the old-fashioned way — he earned it. Coach Whitt also said that Greene will be missed and he is right about that, too.

 

Mark Murphy is the editor of Inside the Auburn Tigers magazine and newsletter

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