It has been a tumultuous past few weeks for No. 17 Wisconsin. From the euphoria of a Big Ten West title to the demoralizing loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship and the shocking departure of head coach Gary Andersen, there are few emotions the Badgers haven’t experienced lately.
They’ll get a chance to put those emotions behind them and end the season on a high note when they take on No. 19 Auburn (8-4) in the Outback Bowl New Year’s Day.
Just like two years ago, Wisconsin (10-3) will use the bowl matchup as a transition game to a new era, welcoming a new head coach and saying goodbye to an All-American running back.
In the 2013 Rose Bowl against Stanford, the recently hired Andersen stood on the sidelines while athletic director Barry Alvarez made a one-game cameo return to head coaching. Besides that, it was two-time consensus All-American Montee Ball’s final collegiate game.
Now it will be a similar picture Jan. 1 in Tampa: the newly hired Paul Chryst will watch as Alvarez once again makes a temporary return to coaching, while Heisman runner-up Melvin Gordon will make his final appearance in a Wisconsin uniform after declaring for the 2015 NFL Draft.
While the Badgers finished the season ranked fourth in the nation in total defense, they were gashed by Ohio State’s read-option offense in the conference title game. It was Wisconsin’s worst defensive performance of the year, allowing season highs in points (59), rushing yards (301), total yards (558) and yards per play (9.9).
Auburn will essentially employ the same offensive style as the Buckeyes did Dec. 6. Tigers’ quarterback Nick Marshall is one of the best read-option quarterbacks in the country, a threat to take it himself or hand it off to All-SEC running back Cameron Artis-Payne.
A former defensive back, Marshall finished 10th nationally in rushing among quarterbacks, totaling 780 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground. Whether it’s on a designed run or a scramble, he is always a threat to hurt defenses with his legs.
While Marshall’s passing is shaky at times, he can occasionally air it out and make a wildly impressive throw. He has connected on 13 passing plays of 40 yards or more this season, on par with prolific passers like Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston.
Marshall may be without his No. 1 receiver, however. D’haquille Williams has been dealing with an illness and a sprained MCL. Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn was unwilling to say anything definitive about his injury status.
Williams leads the Tigers with 45 catches, 730 yards and five touchdowns. His absence would create a larger role for big play threat Sammie Coates, who averages 23.9 yards per catch, third-best in the country.
While Auburn’s offense is full of playmakers, its defense is mediocre. The Tigers were ranked in the middle third of college football in all four major defensive categories.
That should open up opportunities for the Wisconsin offense. Whether the Badgers continue to rely heavily on Gordon will be one of the biggest keys to the game.
It’s no secret that Wisconsin’s offensive attack runs through Gordon, who is responsible for more than 40 percent of the team’s total yards this season. However, considering this is Gordon’s final game before he begins his professional career, Alvarez may limit his carries to avoid an unnecessary injury.
In that case, Wisconsin’s offense will revolve around backup running back Corey Clement and quarterback Joel Stave. Clement has been banged up with a shoulder injury for the past several games, so it’s unclear if he would be fully healthy by the bowl game.
Meanwhile, Stave will have to put the Ohio State game behind him. He was awful in the Big Ten Championship, throwing three interceptions, but had arguably the best performance of his career one week earlier against Minnesota. In that game, he averaged an excellent 11.9 yards per pass attempt while tossing two touchdowns and zero picks.
Wisconsin’s season has been loaded with inconsistency, but New Year’s Day is an opportunity for the Badgers to capture their first bowl win since 2009. While the Big Ten Championship debacle and Andersen’s sudden exodus left the fan base reeling, the Chryst hiring has been met with mass approval and the program seems to be back on its feet.
Kickoff from Raymond James Stadium is scheduled for 11 a.m. Jan. 1 and will be televised on ESPN2.