But that is not all that the Badgers (9-3) or Tigers (9-2) are playing for. After all, most prognosticators did not see either of these teams making this bowl game when the season began. Auburn had lost two running backs, both top-10 draft picks, and its quarterback to the NFL. Wisconsin had lost 14 starters, including its entire front four from one of the best defenses in the nation.
Now, at season's end, the two teams are playing not only for respect but for a 10-win season.
Establishing the run: The decisive trend in this year's bowl games has been that the team that has amassed the most rushing yards has won the game, and the Capital One Bowl should be no different. Both teams rely on their running backs not only for yardage and scoring, but also to open up the passing game.
In Auburn's season-opening loss to Georgia Tech, the Tigers ran for just 50 yards, forcing quarterback Brandon Cox to throw 44 times. While he threw for 342 yards, he also threw four of his season-total seven interceptions in a loss that snapped a 15-game winning streak. But Auburn has been hot since Kenny Irons took over at tailback, and the Badger defense has given up 761 rushing yards in Wisconsin's three losses this year.
In UW's 35-14 loss to Penn State, it ran for -11 yards, including a 20-carry, 38-yard performance by All-American tailback Brian Calhoun. In the home finale to Iowa the following week, the Badgers gained just 19 yards rushing in another loss, including 18 rushing yards from Calhoun. They got back on track against Hawaii with Calhoun rushing for 149 yards. The Badgers will need a strong performance from Calhoun and the running game to have a chance to win Monday.
Intensity levels: There is no doubt that Auburn's front seven has a significant advantage over Wisconsin's offensive line in the athleticism department. For Calhoun and the Badgers, that means they will have to come out of the locker room with great intensity and a mindset that the offensive line is going to need to outwork the Tigers' defensive front and the UW running backs are going to have to rely on a power ground-game.
With speedy Auburn defensive ends and probably the fastest linebackers Wisconsin has seen all season, it will be important for Calhoun to establish a presence running the ball between the tackles—finding seams and bursting through them. If he can do that early on, he will not only open up the passing threat, but also may get a chance to sneak a few carries around the outside.
On the other side of the ball, if the Tigers' linebackers come out ready to rumble, the Badgers could be in trouble from the get-go. And if the Tigers jump out to an early lead like they usually do—they've outscored opponents 210-67 in the first half this year—they probably will not look back.
Fighting in the trenches: This game will feature a variety of interesting matchups on the offensive and defensive fronts, starting with the Badgers' All-American offensive left tackle Joe Thomas. The junior, who has yet to make a decision regarding a potential early entry in the NFL Draft, could be playing in his final game as a Badger. He will not only will he continue to anchor the left side of the offensive line, he will turn things around and take about a dozen snaps at defensive end throughout the game.
When he does turn around, he will be going up against a monster Auburn offensive line which is held down at the tackles by Troy Reddick (6-foot-5, 335 pounds) and Marcus McNeill (6-foot-9, 337 pounds).
But the matchup with the biggest impact may be between UW freshman left tackle Kraig Urbik and Auburn defensive end Stanley McClover. If McClover, who is also considering going pro early, can learn a thing or two from Penn State's Tamba Hali and wreak havoc on Urbik, the Badgers will be in for a long day.
Crucial special teams action: If Wisconsin can keep the game close—which the odds-makers seem to be betting against—it could be special teams play that makes the difference. The Badgers may need a special teams miscue on the part of the Tigers—whether it be a momentum-killer early or a disastrous falter late.
As Alvarez has noted, UW's special teams have been the team's most consistent unit all season long. Sophomore punter Ken DeBauche could win a Ray Guy Award before his career is over and kicker Taylor Mehlhaff has been steady. But the difference-maker could be playmaker Brandon Williams, an All-American all-purpose player with nearly 1,000 total punt and kick return yards. The Badgers have received solid contributions from several young players, including a pair of blocked punts by freshman Jonathan Casillas.
For Auburn, kicker John Vaughn is just 11-of-19 kicking field goals this season, including a 1-for-6 debacle in the Tigers' overtime loss to LSU. Punt returner Tre Smith has averaged less than eight yards per return and will be replaced by freshman Robert Dunn in the Capital One Bowl. Kickoff returner Devin Aromashodu has done all right, but has not shown the ability to break a return for a score.