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Zulgad: End on high note? Gophers should welcome the test they will get against SEC foe Auburn in Outback Bowl

The Gophers fell short of getting a Rose Bowl berth and won’t be playing in a New Year’s Six bowl, but they will be playing on New Year’s Day and facing a team that will provide the type of test this program needs.

After a season of continually being questioned because of the lack of strength of their schedule, the Gophers learned Sunday they will face Auburn in the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. The Gophers hopes of playing in the Big Ten title game, and potentially the Rose Bowl, came to an end on Nov. 30 when the Wisconsin Badgers came to TCF Bank Stadium and left with a too-easy 38-17 victory.

The loss was the Gophers’ second in three Big Ten games — the other was at Iowa — and meant the 2-game lead they held entering the Hawkeyes game was gone. It also left the Gophers with one signature victory, a 31-26 win over Penn State on Nov. 9 at TCF Bank Stadium, but little else when it came to impressive wins.

The Gophers have a chance to change that against 12th-ranked Auburn (9-3, 5-3 SEC). Minnesota (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten) finished 18th in the College Football Playoff rankings.

As the projections for bowl games were being made in recent weeks, there was debate on SKOR North about whether the Gophers wanted an opponent like Auburn or Alabama (which will play Michigan in the Citrus Bowl) or a weaker SEC opponent like Tennessee. My radio partners, Phil Mackey and Ramie Makhlouf, argued that it would be better to get the weaker foe, get the victory and end on a successful note as recruits watched.

But the feeling from this end was that P.J. Fleck should have this program past the point of wanting to beat up on a team that doesn’t provide a tough test. We saw the Gophers do plenty of that this season as they took advantage of a Big Ten schedule that did not include Ohio State and Michigan. The Gophers blasted Illinois by 23 points, Nebraska by 27, Rutgers by 35, Maryland by 42 and Northwestern by 16.

This was a big part of the reason the national media and the committee that does the College Football Playoff rankings wasn’t ready to take the Gophers seriously until they beat Penn State. That respect waned after the losses against Iowa and Wisconsin.

A win over Auburn would send a Gophers team that will return several key players into the offseason on a high note. That, of course, won’t be easy. Auburn has two victories over Top 10 teams — the Tigers beat Oregon to open the season and finished the regular season with a victory over Alabama in the Iron Bowl — and lost to No. 10 Florida, No. 2 LSU and No. 4 Georgia.

Freshman quarterback Bo Nix completed 15 of 30 passes for 173 yards and a touchdown and carried the ball six times for 44 yards and another score in the 48-45 victory over Alabama on Nov. 30. That makes Nix one of six quarterbacks who have beaten Alabama over the past five seasons, putting him in the company of Mississippi’s Chad Kelly, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence, Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham and LSU’s Joe Burrow.

Auburn averaged 34 points a game this season and gave up 18.6; the Gophers averaged 34.3 points and surrendered 22.4. Nix’s favorite target is wide receiver Seth Williams, who had 55 receptions for 801 yards and eight touchdowns. Auburn’s leading rusher, JaTarvious Whitlow, had 739 yards on the ground on 147 carries and nine touchdowns.

The Gophers have plenty of offensive firepower as well with quarterback Tanner Morgan (2,975 yards, 28 touchdowns, six interceptions), wide receivers Rashod Bateman (57 catches, 1,170 yards, 11 touchdowns) and Tyler Johnson (74 catches, 1,114 yards, 11 TDs) and running back Rodney Smith (212 carries, 1,094 yards, eight TDs).

The Gophers were overmatched on the offensive and defensive lines against Wisconsin and will need to slow Auburn defensive end Marlon Davidson (7.5 sacks) if they want to pull off the upset. Auburn opened as 8-point favorites and the line quickly moved to Auburn by 7.5 points as money moved toward Minnesota.

That speaks to just how difficult many experts expect this game to be for the Gophers. That should be exactly what Fleck and his players wanted.


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