Big Game Hunting: A mighty big playoff upset and a Northwestern ‘W’ against Auburn

Is Auburn, the Wildcats’ Citrus Bowl opponent, going to be as ready to play? As motivated? As whole? Not a chance on that last front.

SHARE Big Game Hunting: A mighty big playoff upset and a Northwestern ‘W’ against Auburn
Wisconsin v Northwestern

Fitzgerald and the Wildcats are sure to be ready to go against Auburn.

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

It was a remark heard ’round college football.

Offensive to many, to be sure. Awkward and probably a bit disconcerting, too.

“The last time this 2020 team played,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said Wednesday after his Gators were torn apart by Oklahoma 55-20 in the Cotton Bowl, “was 11 days ago.”

Translation: Don’t even count the three-plus hours of butt-kicking you just witnessed. It was practice for 2021 and didn’t mean a dang thing to us.

Oklahoma didn’t see the same Florida team that Alabama had in the SEC championship game. In this one, the Gators were missing 16 players due to a blend of active COVID-19 cases and — the start of a trend? — opt-outs by several top, NFL-bound players. Three of Heisman Trophy finalist quarterback Kyle Trask’s best receivers opted out. Trask watched about half his team’s offensive snaps from the bench.

Mullen’s excuse-making was a real turn-off. But it’s not like he was wrong: The Gators basically mailed one in. Is this the future for talent-laden Power 5 teams that have playoff aspirations but don’t make it that far? Has the seven-year-old college playoff — which likely will expand in the not-too-distant future — drained the importance out of non-playoff bowls?

Not to everybody. Not to Northwestern.

When the Wildcats run onto the field Friday at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida, they’ll be ready to rock and roll. We know this because we know that’s who they are; it’s what makes Pat Fitzgerald’s program special. Steering clear of COVID-19 more successfully than any other major program in a pandemic season also was special.

Is opponent Auburn going to be as ready? As motivated? As whole? Not a chance on that last count.

The Tigers — with Gus Malzahn fired and Kevin Steele steering the ship on an interim basis — are dealing with more than coaching volatility. Starters on both sides of the ball have opted out, including No. 1 receiver Anthony Schwartz. There are rumors of some player dissent with Malzahn out and former Boise State coach Bryan Harsin in. And there have been enough positive tests all season to cause concerns and disruptions.

We know we can count on playoff teams Alabama, Notre Dame, Clemson and Ohio State to bring their best because they have everything to play for. We know we can count on Northwestern, too.

But the whole “who wants it more?” question — always present during bowl season, when many participants are coming off goal-zapping losses — seems more relevant than ever when trying to predict outcomes. About those predictions:

Peach: No. 6 Cincinnati (+7) vs. No. 11 Georgia (Friday, 11 a.m., ESPN): We salute the unbeaten Bearcats. They’re absolutely worthy of this chance to rep the Group of Five conferences against a blue-blood opponent. But Georgia is locked in, loaded like a playoff team and crushing it offensively since quarterback JT Daniels got his hands on the keys. Did we mention this is in Atlanta? UGA, 34-20.

Citrus: No. 15 Northwestern (-4) vs. Auburn (Friday, noon, Ch. 7, 720-AM): If the Tigers were healthy and frothing at the mouths (wait, that doesn’t sound very healthy), it would be hard to pick against them. Take the team that’s thrilled to be playing some football. #GoCats, 26-14.

Rose: No. 1 Alabama (-20) vs. No. 4 Notre Dame (Friday, 3 p.m., ESPN, 1000-AM): Look, of course the Rose Bowl is being played in Arlington, Texas. What’s so complicated about that? The real question: Is this one over before it even starts? The answer is yes. The Tide offense is even better than LSU’s was last year, and you saw what LSU did when it put the pedal to the metal against elite competition. Bad guys, 52-21.

Sugar: No. 2 Clemson (-7½) vs. No. 3 Ohio State (Friday, 7 p.m., ESPN): The Buckeyes have the revenge factor after losing a playoff classic to the Tigers last year. They have the bulletin board working, too, after Dabo Swinney ranked them 11th in the last coaches poll. But can they really pull this off against Trevor Lawrence and a defense that all but swallowed Notre Dame whole in the ACC title game? #GoBucks, 37-34 (OT).

Gator: No. 24 NC State (+2½) vs. Kentucky (Saturday, 11 a.m., ESPN): The Gator Bowl never looked so blah. Don’t you just love it when a 4-6 squad is favored against a ranked foe? The 4-6 squad, 27-20.

Outback: No. 7 Indiana (-8½) vs. Mississippi (Saturday, 11:30 a.m., Ch. 7): The Rebels are sneakily very talented — even more so than the Hoosiers offensively when both teams are at full strength — but opt-outs will hurt them. IU pulls away and dumps the contents of every bucket it can find on nutty Tom Allen, 38-21.

Fiesta: No. 12 Iowa State (-4) vs. No. 25 Oregon (Saturday, 3 p.m., ESPN): The Ducks have some question marks due to — take a guess — opt-outs. The Cyclones are all-in for a win. Watch running back Breece Hall have a monster day. ISU, 30-24.

Orange: No. 5 Texas A&M (-7½) vs. No. 14 North Carolina (Saturday, 7 p.m., ESPN): No one has had a better season at the coaching position than good ol’ Mack Brown, who gets a team ready for a bowl game as well as just about anybody. The Tar Heels are dangerous here, folks, especially with the Aggies a little bummed out about missing the playoff. Still … Aggies, 31-30.

Since last time: 7-3 straight up, 5-5 vs. the spread.

Season to date: 63-23 straight up, 52-33-1 vs. the spread.

The Latest
The entertaining ‘Facing Nolan’ gets the taciturn pitcher to discuss his life and his competitive side.
The team has a waiting list of 140,000 for 81,441-seat Lambeau Field, which means a long time on the list.
Lesly Morales has been missing since late April, family said.
The Committee on Public Safety approved the mayor’s ordinance by a comfortable vote of 14 to 3 that did not reflect the barrage of concerns raised about a crackdown roundly condemned as a toothless and desperate headline-grabber that will have no impact on youth violence.