Wisconsin (10-3) vs. Auburn (8-4)
Jan. 1, Noon ET (ESPN2)
• Reason to watch: Because Barry Alvarez makes more comeback tours than The Who? We kid, but the transition dynamic on both sides of the ball runs neck-and-neck with the fascinating philosophical clash. Wisconsin’s head coach for 2015, Paul Chryst, will watch as his future boss, Alvarez, coaches one more time after Gary Andersen shockingly left for Oregon State. Auburn won’t have Will Muschamp calling defensive signals after hiring him as defensive coordinator, but what might his impact be on that unit nonetheless? And then you’ve got the teeth-gnashing Badgers offense on the other side of Auburn’s warp-speed attack. There are plots and subplots galore.
• Keep an eye on: Heisman runner-up Melvin Gordon and the Wisconsin offensive line sizing up Barry Sanders. The Big Ten title game loss was striking both for the Badgers’ 59 points surrendered to Ohio State and their zero points produced. Gordon’s 76 yards represented his second-worst output of the season, and a veteran offensive line seemed out of whack once veteran center Dan Voltz left the game four snaps in with an ankle injury. Gordon needs 293 yards to break Sanders’ all-time record of 2,628 yards in a season. The junior is unlikely to hit that mark, even with Auburn happy to get into a shootout. But a fifth 200-yard game is not out of the question, so will the Badgers line be healthy enough to get Gordon close?
• Did you know: That for all the defensive pearl-clutching that led to Muschamp’s arrival, Auburn finished the regular season as a top-50 run defense. The Tigers finished 46th in the nation in stopping opponents’ ground attacks, allowing a respectable 149.5 yards per game (at 4.09 yards per carry). It’s not great, but it’s not sieve-like. Wisconsin and its commitment to pulverizing a defense with Gordon is a different beast, but there appears to be at least some raw material to work with. Muschamp won’t coach in the bowl game, but your head is buried under about 60,000 tons of sand if you think that he’s not chiming in on the game plan.
• Final analysis: Auburn averaged 35.8 points per game this season. Wisconsin averaged 34.6. There’s more than one way to keep the scoreboard operators busy, evidently, and no one should expect a defensive standoff here. The issue is how bad the Badgers’ defense looked in the Big Ten title game against an Ohio State offense down to its third quarterback; this was a unit that was surrendering just 16.8 points per game before the 59-point shellacking applied by the Buckeyes. It creates all sorts of questions. Was a Wisconsin defense that faced two top-50 scoring offenses all year actually that good? Will the players show up for a coordinator who may be headed west as soon as the game ends?
Auburn has defensive problems, too. But at least it has staff continuity and an injection of energy with Muschamp’s hire and presence. That should be enough to make the difference before the Badgers turn the page again.
• The pick: Auburn 38, Wisconsin 30