Northwestern is in a New Year's Day bowl game for the first time since the 1996 season, and coach Pat Fitzgerald is especially happy for his seniors.
This is the final group of seniors that was recruited by former coach Randy Walker, who died in July 2006 and was replaced by Fitzgerald.
"This is their last opportunity to put on the purple and white, and to do it on January 1, I don't know if you could write a better script for a finale," said Fitzgerald, whose team plays Auburn in the Outback Bowl.
Northwestern is in the postseason for just the eighth time; the Wildcats are looking for their first bowl win since a 20-14 victory over California in the 1949 Rose Bowl, which was their first bowl appearance. This is the second postseason appearance in a row for Northwestern and its fifth this decade.
"When I was recruited here in 1993, the one thing that was used against Northwestern was consistent success on the field," said Fitzgerald, a former Wildcats linebacker. "We've erased that negative toward our program. We've gone in a completely different direction, and now we're a consistent winner."
Auburn is returning to the postseason after a one-year absence; this is the Tigers' ninth appearance this decade. It's also a homecoming of sorts for first-year Tigers coach Gene Chizik, who went to high school in Clearwater - which is across Tampa Bay from downtown Tampa, where the bowl is played.
OUTBACK BOWL: WHO GETS THE EDGE?
Auburn rush offense vs. Northwestern rush defense: The move to a full-fledged spread attack has livened up the rushing attack; the Tigers average 213.8 yards per game on the ground. Ben Tate is the main guy (1,254 yards, eight TDs); he has six 100-yard games this season, but just one came in the final five regular-season games. Onterio McCalebb is dangerous in space. Northwestern has been OK against the run, though Penn State and Illinois gashed the Wildcats in the final month of the regular season.
Auburn pass offense vs. Northwestern pass defense: Chris Todd has thrown 21 TD passes and just six interceptions, but he cooled noticeably in the second half of the season. Take out a four-TD game against FCS member Furman, and Todd threw as many interceptions (five) as touchdowns in the second half of the season. Darvin Adams (10 TD catches) heads a capable group of receivers. Northwestern's pass defense has been shaky, though the Wildcats do have 15 interceptions. The Wildcats have a good pass rush, but Auburn's line has done a nice job protecting Todd.
vs. Northwestern (8-4)
WHEN: 11 a.m., Friday.
WHERE: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
TV: ESPN (Dave Pasch will do play-by-play, with Bob Griese and Chris Spielman as the analysts).
THE LINE: Auburn by 7.5.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Auburn 3-5, Northwestern 2-3.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Auburn 20th, Northwestern 111th.
BCS RANKING: Both are unranked.
REFEREES: A crew from the Big 12.
COACHES: Auburn - Gene Chizik (first bowl); Northwestern - Pat Fitzgerald (0-1 in bowls).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: This game should get the New Year off to a good start. Both teams have had their moments on offense, and both teams also have struggled at times on defense. Plus, it's a Big Ten-SEC matchup, and those usually are entertaining.
KEY STATS: Northwestern is 29th in passing offense, averaging 266.1 yards per game. Auburn is 28th in pass defense, allowing 191.8 yards per game. Auburn has trouble against the run, but Northwestern's rush offense is quite anemic.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Going into the season, most observers felt Northwestern senior DE Corey Wootton had All-America potential. But he took longer than expected to fully heal from a broken leg sustained in last season's Alamo Bowl. He turned it on down the stretch, though, with four sacks in the final five regular-season games. Can Auburn keep him out of its backfield?
Northwestern rush offense vs. Auburn rush defense: The Wildcats' running game improved in the second half of the season. But while Northwestern has 17 rushing TDs, no one rushed for more than 294 yards. QB Mike Kafka is probably the best runner on the team, but he ran quite a bit less in the final month of the regular season because of injury issues. Auburn's run defense is weak. But can Northwestern take advantage?
Northwestern pass offense vs. Auburn pass defense: The Wildcats throw for 266.1 yards per game and have 16 TD passes. Four receivers have at least 32 catches, headed by possession-receiver extraordinaire Zeke Markshausen's 79. Andrew Brewer is a solid deep threat. Auburn has played good pass defense. CB Walter McFadden and SS Daren Bates are the guys to watch in the secondary. While Kafka has good mobility, Northwestern's line has had trouble protecting him. Auburn DE Antonio Coleman could have a big day rushing the passer.
Auburn special teams vs. Northwestern special teams: Auburn K Wes Byrum is 14-of-15, including 5-of-6 from between 40 and 49 yards. But he has attempted just four field goals (and made all four) in the past seven games. Forty-one of Clinton Durst's 58 punts either have been fair-caught or placed inside the 20. Auburn's coverage units and its punt-return unit have been bad. But the Tigers have a dangerous trio of kick returners, headed by Demond Washington. Northwestern K Stefan Demos is 18-of-23 and - like Byrum - is dangerous up to 50 yards. Demos doubles as the punter, but he has struggled in that role (averaging barely 35 yards per kick). WR Stephen Simmons is a good kick returner, but the coverage units and punt returners are average at best.
Auburn coaching staff vs. Northwestern coaching staff: Gene Chizik has Auburn in a New Year's Day bowl in his first season, but the Tigers faded after a 5-0 start. Still, a postseason appearance is a good sign. Gus Malzahn's offense was highly productive early before leveling off a bit. Pat Fitzgerald has Northwestern in a bowl for the second season in a row, only the second time in school history the Wildcats have made back-to-back postseason appearances. The offensive staff has done some imaginative things with the passing attack, which has been a must considering the sorry state of the rushing attack.
X-factor: Northwestern has been awful when it has had to punt; the Wildcats rank 115th in the nation in net punting, at 31.7 yards per kick. Auburn conceivably could get a few short fields to work with in this game.
Auburn will win if: Auburn needs to run effectively with Tate and McCalebb. Against five FBS opponents in the second half of the season, the Tigers totaled just three rushing TDs. They won't win this game unless they run for 150-plus yards.
Northwestern will win if: Kafka must be sharp. While the Wildcats' run defense has been solid, Auburn's offense is going to move the ball. But Northwestern's myriad offensive formations could cause Auburn's secondary some problems. If Kafka is sharp, Northwestern can win a shootout.
EXPERT PICKS Olin Buchanan: Auburn 31, Northwestern 21
Tom Dienhart: Auburn 31, Northwestern 28
David Fox: Northwestern 27, Auburn 24
Mike Huguenin: Auburn 26, Northwestern 23
Steve Megargee: Auburn 28, Northwestern 13
Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.