Led by athletic quarterback Mike Kafka, the Northwestern Wildcats are one of the most dynamic offensive teams in the Big 10 this season and enter the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day averaging 25.2 points per game and 386 yards of total offense.
Despite not having a single runner with over 300 yards on the ground this season, the Wildcats average 120 yards per game on the ground and have 17 touchdowns, but it's through the air when they do the most damage. Averaging 266 yards through the air with 16 touchdowns, Northwestern's passing offense is one that has Auburn's secondary preparing for an air raid.
"There is nobody we played this year that I can really compare them too," cornerback coach Phillip Lolley said. "Maybe Mississippi State. They know how to throw the football. I can tell you that. They throw it around pretty good. They run the football with the one-back stuff and do a good job with that.
"It presents a challenge when you can spread that many people out. I would say they get empty (no backs) more than anybody we've played this year. It will probably be their number one set. They spread you out and make you play."
Playing much of the year with just a handful of defensive backs thanks to a spring injury to Mike McNeil an early season injury to Drew Cole, and a career-threatening injury to Zac Etheridge against Ole Miss, Auburn's secondary has been a M*A*S*H unit in 2009.
That should change somewhat against Northwestern as Cole is back healthy and ready to give the Tigers some minutes at safety along with fellow reserves Mike Slade and T'Sharvan Bell behind starters Daren Bates and Demond Washington. At cornerback D'Antoine Hood and even former wide receiver Anthony Gulley could give starters Walter McFadden and Neiko Thorpe a break if needed.
It could conceivably come to that as the Wildcats run plays at a breakneck pace, even faster than Auburn's offense this season. Northwestern ran 919 plays in 2009 compared to just 770 for its opponents. That's something Auburn will have to deal with on Friday and safety coach Tommy Thigpen said the Tigers are preparing for anything and everything from the Wildcats.
"It's different because in the SEC it's stop the run first," Thigpen said. "This is different than what we've seen. This team throws the ball 50 times a game with a lot of timing routes. Our motto has always been to stop the run and make teams one-dimensional as much as we can.
"This will be a tremendous challenge. Number 13 (Mike Kafka) throws the ball as good as anybody we've seen. (Jevan) Snead from Ole Miss, we thought he had a really quick release. This guy is just as quick as Snead. It's going to be a challenge for our football team. They are a quality team."