Staff Predictions: 2021 VRBO Citrus Bowl

No. 14 Northwestern has plenty to play for when it takes on Auburn on New Year’s Day. In all likelihood, it will be the final game with the senior linebacking firm of Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin, one of the most formidable groups in program history. It will also likely be the final college game for other major contributors like JR Pace, Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman and Peyton Ramsey. There’s an 11-year-old bowl game with Auburn, one of the craziest in the history of college football, to take vengeance for. And Defensive Coordinator Mike Hankwitz will be coaching the final game of his career in search of win 400. Here are our staff’s predictions for the 2021 Citrus Bowl:

Eric Rynston-Lobel (@EricR_L): Northwestern 31, Auburn 16

Northwestern’s actually favored to win and it should be. Despite a wave of transfers, the ‘Cats are well-positioned to have the core of the roster on the field. Meanwhile Auburn comes to Orlando with an interim head coach and several question marks. Peyton Ramsey and Cam Porter lead the way on offense, and the defense sends Mike Hankwitz off with win #400. 

Player to watch: AJ Hampton

Hampton showed tremendous growth in the Big Ten Championship Game in Greg Newsome’s absence. He’ll likely be the ‘Cats top corner again against some very athletic WRs. 

Kevin Sweeney (@cbbcentral): Northwestern 24, Auburn 19

The ‘Cats grind out a tough bowl game victory behind a strong run game and a defense that’s up to the task. 

Player to watch: Adetomiwa Adebawore

WNUR will pronounce his name right, will anyone else?

John Volk (@jk_volk): Northwestern 21, Auburn 13

We won’t see the same kind of fireworks show we saw when these teams last met in the 2010 Outback Bowl as Northwestern’s defense should shut down Auburn’s offense. The unit that held Justin Fields to 114 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions should have no problem with Bo Nix. As long as the ‘Cats can contain running back Tank Bigsby and get their own young backs going, Northwestern should secure a low-scoring victory.

Player to watch: Earnest Brown IV

With Eku Leota in the transfer portal, Brown will get a sack in his second-straight game to end his Northwestern career on a high note.

Brea Lassek (@BreaLassek): Northwestern 24, Auburn 14

After giving up only 22 points to Ohio State, the ‘Cats will control Auburn’s less explosive offense to send out defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz with his 400th career win. 

Player to watch: Peyton Ramsey

Ramsey’s steady composure will return after accounting for all three of NU’s turnovers (two interceptions, one fumble) against the Buckeyes. Look for Ramsey’s decision-making to be especially effective on third down.

Pat Timlin (@pat_timlin): Northwestern 23, Auburn 20 (OT)

For our loyal listeners here at WNUR Sports, you’ll know that I hosted a show every Sunday night, called “‘Cat’s Classics with Pat Timlin,” where we invited back old station members to recount wild games. After an extensive eight-episode season, I learned there’s a few staples of a Northwestern Bowl game that make it a classic, and given how this season has played out, this one will most certainly be a classic. Expect Northwestern to stay true to itself, playing a defense-heavy game with bursts of scoring that come few and far between. Auburn may dominate the ball, but Defensive Coordinator Mike Hankwitz is able to hang his hat on his defense’s dominant bend-don’t-break strategy. An unlikely hero will emerge to help Northwestern down the stretch, likely a walk-on or a player’s first score of the season (think DT/FB Joe Spivak). The game goes to overtime where Kuhbander nails a kick, Northwestern picks off a turnover prone Bo Nix, and Fitzgerald announces he’s not leaving in the post game press conference. The future version of ‘Cats Classics 10 years from now has Kevin Sweeney on the show. 

Player to watch: Cameron Mitchell

While all eyes may be upon a first-year named Cam running the football, an equally important rookie Cam will be stepping up defensively for the ‘Cats. There were glimpses of DB Cameron Mitchell last week against Ohio State after Third Team All-American Greg Newsome II left the game with an injury, however with the news of Newsome’s intent to enter the NFL draft, this week will have a full serving of Mitchell. The Bolingbrook, Illinois native had himself a day against the Buckeyes, finishing with four tackles, half a sack, an interception, and a pass deflection in Northwestern’s complete shutdown of Heisman candidate Justin Fields. I am excited to see how Mitchell handles the speed of the SEC, going up against Bo Nix and Auburn’s receiving core.

Jack Lido (@JackLido): Northwestern 20, Auburn 14

Northwestern finally converts on forced turnovers and wins a classic SEC-Big Ten defensive slugfest. Don’t get it twisted, the Tigers can put up points in a hurry, but they have been incredibly inconsistent, and struggle against top tier defenses. Unfortunately, we won’t see the same fully healthy, fully pissed off Northwestern defense that held Wisconsin to 7 points and Ohio State to 9 points in the first half (Greg Newsome left the Big Ten Championship just before halftime). Auburn will be able to keep it close through the arm of Bo Nix and the feet of Tank Bigsby, but Mike Hankwitz’s defense holds true in his final game.

Player to watch: AJ Hampton

Hamton quietly had a solid year at corner, and will be asked to step in for an injured Newsome. One could argue he’s the best corner on the roster, but that won’t stop Bo Nix, Seth Williams and the unfathomably fast Anthony Schwartz from picking on him. If Northwestern locks in on the idea that they can’t get beaten by Nix, chances are they won’t. Excited for this one in Orlando.

Bonus player to watch: Joe Spivak

Captain Charisma, Mr. Wow, The Big Sexy, the defensive linemen moonlighting as a fullback. Whatever you may call him, Joe Spivak is going to score a touchdown in the Citrus Bowl.

Margaret Fleming (@mgfleming12): Northwestern 28, Auburn 21

The ‘Cats will bounce back from the Ohio State loss and go 1-0 this week led by its seniors in their last game.

Player to watch: Brandon Joseph

Click here to see my tweet from the Big Ten Championship Game that explains everything.

Nicholas Magas (@nick_magas): Northwestern 24, Auburn 17

NU will bounce back and win the turnover battle. What’s more fitting than the ‘Cats finishing their season with another one-possession win?

Player to watch: Riley Lees

He won’t rack up many yards, but look for him to make two key first down catches in the middle of the field.

Karan Gowda (@dalaigowda): Northwestern 27, Auburn 23

After some weeks off, Northwestern will be a little slow out of the gate but their defense and steady quarterback play will seal the tough bowl win.

Player to watch: Cam Porter

Northwestern’s offense will be successful based on their ability to run the football and Cam Porter has been the go-to man of late.

Jacob Brown (@cubsfan57): Northwestern 17, Auburn 14

Northwestern’s defense is REALLY good. With that said, neither side will score very much, as NU will greatly miss Kyric McGowan.

Players to watch: Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin

This game could impact the decision of Gallagher or Bergin to return next year, so I’m watching those two.

Matthew Coronado: Northwestern 28, Auburn 17

Northwestern is hungry after losing a Big Ten Championship Game that was closer than the score indicated. The ‘Cats want to prove the doubters wrong again, here’s a golden opportunity.

Player to watch: Brandon Joseph

The All-American and national leader in interceptions will add two more picks to his total.

Adam Clark (@adamclark_21): Northwestern 24, Auburn 21

Aside from the blowout of Purdue in the 2018 Music City Bowl, three out of the last four bowl games for Auburn against Big Ten teams have been decided by one possession. Auburn is no joke this year, but Pat Fitzgerald is the last coach you want to face in a bowl game. The ‘Cats are looking for their fourth-straight bowl win, and they might just grab it.

Player to watch: Peyton Ramsey

We saw flashes of greatness from Ramsey against Ohio State, and in possibly his last bowl game ever, Ramsey will be looking to have the game of his life against the Tigers’ very average pass defense.

Jake Liker (@JakeLiker): Auburn 20, Northwestern 21

As far as I could find, there has never been a bowl game played on New Year’s Day in which the final score matched the year in which the game was played (the 2013 Rose Bowl game was *thiiiis* close). But if ever the stars were to align, surely they would do so for this fateful Vrbo Citrus Bowl: the year is a perfectly reasonable football score, the Cardiac Cats love a close game, Northwestern’s defense is strong enough hold Auburn to 20 points, and its offense mediocre enough to score exactly 21. At long last, a Bowlar Eclipse may be upon us. We can only hope.

Carter Byrd (@CarterByrd13): Northwestern 20, Auburn 16

The inside take from our resident Auburn grad:

This is a classic spot where Auburn does not typically show up. Auburn is coming off a disappointing season at 6-4, fired its head coach, just started practicing yesterday and has at least one key player opting out in wide receiver Anthony Schwartz. There may be a lack of motivation on the side of the Tigers.

Northwestern, on the other hand, has a lot of motivation. This is an opportunity to get a win over a top-15 program in college football. Northwestern could cap off a great season with a win that could push them back into the top-10. I have serious concerns about Auburn’s offense in this game and how it stacks up with the Northwestern defense. 

If Northwestern can get pressure on Bo Nix, Nix will then scramble for his life the entire game and probably make an ill-advised throw or two, resulting in picks. The only caveat would be that if Auburn can get push with the offensive line, it could be a long day for Northwestern because freshman running back Tank Bigsby looks like a future all-American. He passed Bo Jackson for second all-time in Auburn history on the single-season freshman rushing list. In a full season, he would have smashed Michael Dyer’s record of 1,093 yards set on the way to the 2010 BCS National Championship.

However, I believe this game will be a fairly low scoring affair. I think Northwestern will take this one and cover the spread. I have it pegged as a 20-16 Northwestern win. Auburn will only be able to stay in the game because of the leg of its kicker, Anders Carlson.