Coach Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats come into the game on a roll, winners of their last three games including a defeat of Wisconsin 33-31 in the final regular season game. Northwestern also defeated Iowa 17-10 and has an explosive offense that can score points in bunches. Fitzgerald said he's excited for his team and school to be coming South to play Auburn on New Year's Day.
"On behalf of our entire football family we are honored to represent the Big 10 conference," Fitzgerald said. "Our senior class has meant the world to us and the opportunity to play in a New Year's Day bowl to honor them in their last college football game is nothing less than special and significant to our football program. We're going to play a great opponent. We fully anticipate the Purple Nation invading Tampa. We look forward to getting down there too."
One of the most successful senior classes in Northwestern history with 27 wins in four years, Fitzgerald said this group deserved to be rewarded for what it has done on and off the field and he's excited that will be in Tampa.
"I think it proves you can do things the right way in your program, academically, socially, and on the field, and present a very compelling story for bowls as prestigious as the Outback to be excited to have our football program come down and be a part of a January 1 bowl game," Fitzgerald said. "We've had a lot of success here the last few years. This would be our number one goal. It's prominently in our team meeting room. Our number one goal is to win our bowl game. Now we know the game and now we know the opponent. It's back to refocusing on ourselves and improving and getting prepared for the opportunity."
Auburn and Northwestern will be relative strangers to each other on the field with very little overlap in any area. Fitzgerald said he did have a chance to watch the Tigers face Alabama in the Iron Bowl, but he admits there is a lot of work to be done between now and New Year's Day.
"I had a chance in the Big 10 tradition to have the Thanksgiving holiday off," Fitzgerald said. "I was able to watch the Iron Bowl and that was one whale of a football game. I had a chance to watch, but that would be the extent of my knowledge at this point of Auburn in all three phases on the field."
While most thought that Wisconsin was going to be the choice of the Outback Bowl to face Auburn, the bowl selection committee decided that the Wildcats' 33-31 victory was the biggest reason they deserved to make the trip.
"I tell you what it came down to," Outback Bowl President/CEO Jim McVay said. "Wisconsin and Northwestern played a few weeks ago and Northwestern beat them. I believe they have the same conference record. The head-to-head really was the final decision. That's what encouraged our board members because they are comparable teams with comparable records.
"Another benefit is that we'll bring a team in that has not been to the Outback Bowl," he added. "Northwestern is a fun, wide open offense. They are exciting. They have a hell of a quarterback. This is going to be a good game."
Northwestern quarterback Mike Kafka
A team that relies on scoring points to win game for the most part, the Wildcats averaged 25.2 points per game this season while allowing 23.3 to the opposition. Through the air is how they do the most damage as 266 of their 386 total yards per game come via the pass led by quarterback Mike Kafka. He is completing 65.7 percent of his passes with 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
On the ground Kafka is one of four runners over 200 yards for the season with Arby Fields the leader with just 294 yards. Kafka's seven rushing touchdowns are part of 17 on the year for the Wildcats.
Defensively, Northwestern allows 334 yards per game with just 123.5 of that on the ground. Opponents are averaging 220.5 passing yards versus the Wildcats and have thrown 17 touchdowns, but 15 costly interceptions. Senior safety Brad Phillips leads the team with 84 tackles while linebacker Quentin Davie has 81 tackles and leads the team with four sacks and nine tackles for a loss.
This will be Northwestern's eighth bowl appearance in school history, but fifth this decade. Last season the Wildcats lost 30-23 in overtime to Missouri in the Alamo Bowl. Only once has Northwestern faced an SEC team in a bowl, losing 48-28 to Tennessee following the 1996 season in the Citrus Bowl.
Fitzgerald has a 27-22 career record at Northwestern with a 15-17 slate in Big 10 conference action. He's a member of the College Football Hall of Fame despite being just 35 years of age. As a player Fitzgerald was named the Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year in both 1995 and 1996 and also won both the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Chuck Bednarik Award in both years.