Auburn will be the solid favorite to win its bowl matchup as the Tigers play the Minnesota Golden Gophers for the first time in football, but my guess is that this opponent will offer much more of a challenge than the last Big Ten team on the AU schedule.
Last December, the Tigers embarrassed the Purdue Boilermakers in the Music City Bowl at Nashville. When the Tigers and Gophers meet at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on New Year’s Day, the quality of opposition should be higher.
P.J. Fleck was named Big Ten Coach of the Year as the Gophers finished with a 10-2 record, including victories in the team’s first nine games before suffering a four-point setback on the road vs. the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Fleck is known as a high-energy motivator of a coach. He has put together a team that features an offense that probably has the largest line the Tigers have ever faced, including 6-foot-8, 400-pound sophomore Daniel Faalele. All five of the Gophers on the offensive front won some type of all-league recognition this season.
That probably helps explain why quarterback Tanner Morgan has set school single-season records for passing yards (2,975) and touchdown passes (28). The big guys up front have also helped Rodney Smith rush for 1,094 yards this season and become the program’s career leader in all-purpose yardage.
Minnesota’s defense is probably not going to be as difficult to deal with as its offense, which includes a pair of 1,100-plus receivers, but the Gophers do feature the Big Ten’s Defensive Back of the Year, Antoine Whitfield, Jr. He has 58 solo tackles, 25 assists, seven interceptions and three sacks this year.
The Gophers have made it clear they are very excited about the opportunity to play a high-profile SEC team so the Tigers should expect to see an opponent eager to show that the Minnesota program has taken a big step forward with Fleck as head coach.
LSU will be carrying the SEC banner in the four-team college football playoff. Coach O’s bayou boys got a break by drawing the weakest team in the field, by far, in their opening round matchup vs. Oklahoma. I won’t be surprised if LSU scores 50-plus points on the Sooners. However, the championship game could be much tougher.
Even though LSU is the No. 1 seed for the playoffs, I could see Coach Ed Orgeron’s team losing in the finals to either defending champion Clemson or Ohio State. Both of those teams have the offensive talent to take advantage of LSU’s defense.
Looking at the Southeastern Conference as a whole, I don’t believe this has been a vintage season for the league, top to bottom, but of the SEC nine teams playing in the postseason, each looks like it has a solid chance of winning, which is not always the case.
Mark Murphy is the editor of Inside the Auburn Tigers magazine and newsletter