(WCCO)- The 2019 season has been a dream for Gophers fans. The team started out 9-0, welcomed College GameDay to town for the first time and beat Penn State for the first time since 2013.
But, the shine came off a little bit down the stretch with a tough loss against Iowa and a blowout loss to Wisconsin in the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. Still, P.J. Fleck’s group delivered the first 10-win season since 2003 and could possibly win 11 games for the first time since 1904. In order to do so, they would need to beat the Auburn Tigers when the teams meet in the Outback Bowl to kick off 2020.
In looking at the matchup, WCCO sports anchor Mike Max says that the Gophers health is a key factor.
“The Gophers come in pretty healthy. They didn’t have a lot of injuries during the year. So it’s not like they are worried about who is going to play, all those types of things. They are a healthy team and that matters a lot,” said Max.
But, Max, like many others this season, has questions about whether or not Fleck’s team is of the same quality as a team like Gus Malzahn’s Auburn Tigers.
“I think the biggest problem the Gophers might have going into this is the little bit of self doubt about do we belong with the big boys,” said Max.
The team is unlikely to admit to any self doubt, but there may be some after the losses to Iowa and Wisconsin. Regardless, heading into the matchup with Auburn, there are some reasons to like the Gophers chances. First, at 6.2 yards per play, they are among the Top 20 in the nation in that statistic offensively. It’s a dynamic group with quarterback Tanner Morgan throwing to a pair of stud wide receivers (Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman) supplemented by a three-headed running game of Rodney Smith, Mohamed Ibrahim, and Shannon Brooks.
But, that offense has to go up against an Auburn defensive unit that might be better than any it has faced all season. The closest comparison would be Wisconsin, but this Tigers group gets things done in an entirely different way. The Tigers rely upon a ferocious defensive line spearheaded by likely first round pick Derrick Brown in the middle. The Tigers have allowed just 4.7 yards per play (20th-FBS), a 31.1% 3rd down conversion rate (13th) and allowed opposing passers to complete just 57.6% of their passes.
However, if the Gophers offensive line can hold up, there are plays to be had against the secondary. LSU, Florida and even Georgia found success through the air with some explosive plays against this team. The spotlight will be on the Minnesota offensive line and if they can hold up long enough to give Johnson, Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell time to work against the secondary.
On the other side of the ball, Auburn has been wildly inconsistent this season which is to be expected of a team starting a true freshman quarterback. Bo Nix has had his flashes of brilliance (season-opening win over Oregon, Iron Bowl against Alabama) and struggles (3 INT against Florida, completing just 42% of passes against LSU). The Gophers defense has been strong (4.8 YPP), but they will be without a key piece as linebacker Kamal Martin is sitting out the game to prepare for the NFL Draft.
Overall, Max thinks that Auburn’s talent will eventually overwhelm the Gophers, handing Fleck’s team its third loss of the season.
“Auburn’s speed might be a little bit much. I think it will be high-scoring because most college football games are. Not a lot of defenses that offenses can’t solve these days,” said Max. “I think it will be high-scoring, Minnesota will be able to match them (Auburn) for awhile and Minnesota will be able to control the ball up front because their offensive line is pretty good. But, in the end, you have to like Auburn to score about 40 and Minnesota to score about 28 points.”
The oddsmakers agree with the Auburn pick (favored at -7) but they disagree on it being a high-scoring affair, placing the over-under at 52.5 points. If Max is right, then the smart money would be on the Tigers and the over.
Kick-off for the Outback Bowl is set for January 1, 2020 at 12:00 p.m. CST.