Just like how the season started, Wisconsin with take on a SEC West opponent but hope for a better result against No.19 Auburn in the Outback Bowl than the 28-24 loss to No.13 LSU in Houston. Ironically, Auburn (8-4) finished its season tied for fourth in the SEC West with LSU. This is the first time Wisconsin has played in the Outback Bowl since its 21-17 loss to Tennessee on New Year’s Day 2008.
Unlike the beginning of the season, Gary Andersen won’t be roaming the sidelines, bolting for Oregon State shortly after the Badgers loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. With Andersen leaving, Barry Alvarez will once again serve as the interim head coach like he did in the 2013 Rose Bowl against Stanford. Alvarez guided Wisconsin to two Outback Bowl appearances (1997 and 2004) but both resulted in losses to Georgia. Ironically, Alvarez’s last game as the Badgers head coach came in a win over Auburn in the Capitol One Bowl.
The rankings for the Front Seven are determined based on performance from last week, expectations this coming week, and need. It was not easy determining who would play an important role in helping the Badgers win the Outback Bowl, which would give Wisconsin its first bowl win since the 2010 Champs Sports Bowl.
Last Week’s Rankings in Parentheses
1, Melvin Gordon RB (1): Gordon is out for redemption in his final collegiate game for himself and for Wisconsin. Gordon’s 76 yards against Ohio State was his lowest output since week two (38 yards vs. Western Illinois) but also snapped a 10 game streak where he was able to top 120 yards or more on the ground. The good news for Gordon is Auburn’s run defense has been suspect this year, as they have given up 1,794 yards this season (149.5 a game). Gordon averages 7.6 yards a carry, which leads the country, could have his chance of breaking a tackle or two in helping him bust a long one against the Tigers. Auburn has given up four runs of 30 yards or more (36, 32, 37, and 31) this season and Gordon has 20 runs of 30 yards or more this season.
With extra time to prepare, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Alvarez and offensive coordinator line Gordon up in some different places on the field, like receiving the hand off on a jet sweep or having him flank out for a pass. Having caught 17 passes this year, Gordon can also be a threat in the passing game thanks to his speed. Getting the football in his hands in different ways should help keep the Badgers out of any possible third-and-long situations.
Gordon specifically needs to be given opportunities to score. If he can have success running the football, Wisconsin shouldn’t lay a goose egg like they did against Ohio State. Simply put the Badger offense will go as far as Gordon can take them.
2, Derek Landisch MLB (NR): Just like it will be key for Auburn’s run defense of to slow Wisconsin down, it will be important for Wisconsin to do the same. It won’t be easy considering Auburn ranks 11th nationally in rushing offense, averaging 258.5 yards a game. Cameron Artis-Payne leads Auburn and the SEC in rushing with 1,482 yards and is averaging 5.4 yards per carry. Landisch has been consistent for Wisconsin all season when it comes to rush defense, as the first-team All-Big Ten selection leads the team with 16 tackles for loss. His TFLs total 100 lost yards on the season, which currently tanks seventh in school history.
Over Wisconsin’s 12 regular season games, Landisch and the run defense has been able to hold their opponent to less than 100 yards on the ground, but UW has a lot to prove after it allowed Ohio State to run all over them with a season-high 301 yards. There were so many issues against Ohio State by the Badgers run defense that it came down to something as basic as missed tackles or filling in the wrong gap. With a month to prepare for Auburn, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda should be able to make sure everything is squared away and that it doesn’t happen again.
3, Joel Stave QB (3): Stave has to make plays in order to keep Auburn’s run defense honest and extend drives. When Stave does drop back to pass he can’t make a mistake by taking a sack and needs to be efficient with his throws to put the offense in favorable yardage situations. Converting on third downs has been an area where Wisconsin has struggled, only converting 39.2 percent of the time. The Tigers’ defense has been inconsistent, but Auburn has had success on third down, only allowing their opponents of a success rate at 37 percent.
When Stave drops back he needs to be aware of where Jonathan Jones and Jermaine Whitehead are on the field, as Jones and Whitehead have recorded six and four interceptions, respectively, to each rank in the top five of the SEC. Stave can’t force any pass and he needs to go through his reads and make smart throws.
4, Vince Biegel OLB (4): If Landisch can successfully stuff the middle, Biegel will be responsible in keeping contain on the edge and prevent quarterback Nick Marshall from getting outside the pocket. Marshall is second to Artis-Payne with 780 rushing yards (65.0 per game) and has been particularly effective in helping set up favorable third-down situations. Biegel preventing Marshall from bouncing plays outside should help limit Auburn’s third-down success rate of 54 percent.
Marshall is much more than a running threat, as he has thrown for 2,315 yards (192.9 per game). Biegel will need to be able to supply the pressure consistently to make sure Marshall doesn’t have time to get his feet set so he can make an accurate pass to one of his dangerous receivers. Biegel ranks second on the team behind Landisch in tackles for loss and sacks with 15.5 and 7.5, respectively. Outside of tackle for loss and sack numbers Biegel has been able to find ways of supplying the pressure as he has registered four quarterback hurries this season. If Biegel can cause disruption and make Marshall feel uncomfortable, Marshall has shown that he can take care of the football throwing seven interceptions on the year. Good pressure can help limit the run game and cause three and outs or short possessions by the Tigers’ offense.
5, Darius Hillary CB (6): Although known for being an effective rushing team, Auburn still has effective receivers with three of them registering 30 or more reception this season. Duke Williams leads the team with 45 receptions, 730 yards, and five touchdowns. Williams is expected to play after arriving late to Tampa but Auburn has Sammie Coates (717 receiving yards) and Quan Bray (34 catches) to pick up the slack. Hillary has done well all season helping limit team’s top receiving threat but struggled (along with his fellow DBs) in man-to-man coverage on deep passes against Ohio State. The 6-2 Coates ranks third in the NCAA, averaging 23.9 yards a catch, meaning Hillary and UW will be tested.
6, Alex Erickson (NR): In order to help Stave in the passing game Erickson will likely be targeted early and often. Erickson leads Wisconsin in receptions (51) and receiving yards (734) but Erickson will have a tough challenge against the Tigers secondary. Auburn is giving up 239.2 yards a game per contest so Erickson and Stave will have a chance to develop some kind of rhythm in the passing game. The deep pass has struggled for Wisconsin but when they have had success, Erickson has been the target on the other end. If Erickson can find a way to get behind his defensive back and is able to create some separation, Stave will have to be able to connect with Erickson. If Wisconsin can capitalize on a possible busted coverage, it will help open the running game for Gordon.
With Jones and Whitehead being dangerous in the passing game, it would be easy to assume that offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig will try and keep any passes short and immediate to prevent either one of them of having a chance at breaking on the football and recording an interception. If the short passes can be effective it will help open up a possible long pass to Erickson.
7, Michael Caputo (7): Caputo has been fantastic all season, leading the team with 99 tackles (58 solo, 41 assist) and will likely be lined up all over the field at different times during the game. Caputo’s most important role will be helping the secondary defend Auburn’s receivers and make tackles. When Caputo isn’t being relied on in pass coverage he could be used as an extra defender disguised to come on a blitz. Caputo has done well in helping create turnovers with an interception and is tied for first on the team with two fumbles forced. Winning the turnover battle could be a deciding factor.
Others to Note
NG Warren Herring: Wisconsin’s defensive success will depend on the defensive line and what success they can have against Auburn’s offensive line. With Konrad Zagzebski out with a torn ACL injury, it will allow Herring to switch over from defensive end to nose guard. Herring will need to consistently win the point of attack and his athletic ability should help him win his one-on-one matchups.
CB Sojourn Shelton: Hillary will need help in the secondary, and Shelton, who has had his ups and downs this year, will need to play a consistent game. Shelton will have a size disadvantage as he could be giving up either two to four inches in height, depending on his matchup. The area where Shelton has struggled this year has been getting beat off the line of scrimmage, which have led to a defensive pass interference penalty. If Shelton can find a way to make a play or two on the football it will help Hillary shut down the other side of the field. Shelton has registered five pass break ups and pass deflections this year and he will likely line up against Bray, who’s only 5-10. Bray isn’t as big play of threat only averaging 12 yards a catch, giving Shelton a good chance to make some plays.
MLB Marcus Trotter: Like Landisch, Trotter has been consistent in stopping the run since the beginning of the season. He is second on the team with 85 tackles and 11 tackles for loss. At times it will take more than one person to take down either Marshall or Artis-Payne, and Trotter will likely be the one in making the play. Trotter will be key in helping slow down the Tigers when they get into the red zone, as they are converting 87.3 percent of the time and rely on their run game (23 rushing touchdowns).
C Dan Voltz: When Voltz left the game early against Ohio State, the Badgers offense started to suffer. Voltz should be healthy enough to play in the bowl game, and he’ll need to be able to help make sure Gordon and Corey Clement have holes to run through. The defensive line for Auburn has proven to be solid at making plays in the backfield, registering 14.5 tackles for loss and five sacks this season. Voltz and the rest of the offensive line has done well in protecting Stave with only 12 sacks allowed this season, and protecting Stave will be critical for an effective UW offense.