December 22, 2014

Disappointing ends to their regular seasons will unite Auburn and Wisconsin when they meet in the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day, but the poor finishes are unlikely to be the main things on the minds of the Tigers and Badgers.

With athletic director Barry Alvarez coaching Wisconsin in the bowl game and Paul Chryst waiting in the wings to take over next season, the No. 17 Badgers will face a 19th-ranked Auburn squad beset by tragedy.

Wisconsin (10-3) rolled into the Big Ten title game Dec. 6 with seven straight wins and a chance to keep Ohio State out of the inaugural College Football Playoff. The Badgers had outscored opponents 280-123 during their winning streak but hardly put up a fight, getting routed 59-0 by a Buckeyes team that went on to qualify for the four-team playoff.

Four days later, coach Gary Andersen, a Utah native, stunned the school by announcing his resignation to take over as coach at Oregon State.

''I had no idea this was in the works,'' Alvarez said. ''Gary felt like this was an opportunity for him and his family to get back to that part of the country.''

Fortunately for Wisconsin, it had a perfect fill-in with Alvarez, who coached the Badgers from 1990-2005 and compiled a 118-73-4 record. He also coached them in the 2013 Rose Bowl under similar circumstances, as Bret Bielema had accepted the coaching job at Arkansas. Wisconsin lost that game 20-14 to Stanford.

Alvarez said the players asked him to coach the bowl on the day of Andersen's departure and he said he would think about it, but they pressed him again the next day.

''I just couldn't tell those kids no,'' Alvarez said. "It bothers me that the kids have to go through this. Change is difficult for them.''

Coaching this game could have some special meaning for Alvarez, who guided the No. 21 Badgers to a 24-10 win over No. 7 Auburn in the Capital One Bowl after the 2005 season, Alvarez's final game as coach before stepping down and remaining as AD.

Most importantly, he moved quickly to find Andersen's successor, hiring Pittsburgh coach and former Badgers quarterback Chryst on Dec. 17. Chryst, also a former Wisconsin offensive coordinator and Madison native, went 19-19 in three seasons with the Panthers.

''To continue to grow and learn, and then leave and be able to come back ... Coach, I appreciate that, more than you know,'' Chryst said at his introductory press conference, turning to Alvarez.

One advantage Alvarez will have Jan. 1 that Chryst won't next season is Melvin Gordon, the superstar running back that has announced he'll forego his senior season and enter the NFL draft after leading the nation in rushing with 2,336 yards.

Gordon was the Heisman Trophy runner-up, a first-team All-American and the Doak Walker Award winner as the top running back in the country. He topped the FBS in rushing yards per game (179.7) and rushing touchdowns (26) and his overall rushing mark is a Big Ten record.

Gordon is 292 yards shy of Barry Sanders' NCAA single-season rushing mark, and he's determined to help Wisconsin end its four-year bowl win drought. The Badgers lost in the Rose Bowl from 2011-13 before dropping the Capital One Bowl 34-24 to South Carolina last Jan. 1.

''This is important to me, my teammates, the seniors and the university,'' Gordon said. ''No one knows how it feels to win a bowl game. We went through a lot of adversity, and we're just hoping this bowl game can change the way we look at the season.''

Gordon's power running set the tone for the third-ranked rushing attack in the nation (314.0 ypg). Wisconsin also relies on its two-quarterback system of pocket passer Joel Stave and change-of-pace running threat Tanner McEvoy, though Stave struggled badly against Ohio State, going 17 of 43 for 187 yards and three interceptions.

Fans at Raymond James Stadium, however, might have to pay close attention if they want to see any passing. Auburn's run-heavy offense averaged 258.5 yards on the ground, although that's well down from its FBS-best mark of 328.3 last season.

The Tigers (8-4) averaged only 174.7 in their final three games, part of a 1-3 closing stretch that put an end to any hopes of playing for the national title for the second straight year.

Auburn lost 55-44 to Alabama on Nov. 29 and was outscored 130-89 in losing its final three SEC games - a slide that resulted in coach Gus Malzahn firing defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson and hiring Will Muschamp less than two weeks after Muschamp's dismissal as Florida's coach.

Safeties coach Charlie Harbison will serve as defensive coordinator for the bowl.

This game, however, could prove to be an afterthought for the Tigers. Redshirt freshman Jakell Mitchell was shot to death Dec. 14, making him the fourth recent Auburn player to die in the last 2 1/2 years, and third in a shooting at the same apartment complex a few miles from campus.

''I've been through a lot of tragedies since I've been here,'' said receiver Sammie Coates, who is skipping his senior season to enter the draft after averaging 23.9 yards per catch this year. ''Every time something like that happens, it breaks your heart because you don't want to see something like that happen to your family member.

''It broke my heart when I heard it.''

Auburn players will wear Mitchell's No. 31 on their helmets for this game.

Additionally, Malzahn announced Monday that leading receiver D'haquille Williams has been suspended for the game "for breaking team rules." Malzahn said Williams, who had 45 catches for 730 yards, will return for his senior season instead of turning pro.

The Tigers will try to focus on the task at hand and pick up the victory behind their own star back in Cameron Artis-Payne (1,482 yards rushing, 11 touchdowns) along with Nick Marshall, who threw for 2,315 yards, 18 TDs and seven interceptions while rushing for 780 yards and 11 scores.

Running the ball against Wisconsin, however, could prove very difficult. The Badgers are 17th in the country with 118.9 rushing yards allowed per contest.

The Tigers gave up 149.5 yards per game on the ground, but they allowed 516 in their final two losses to the Crimson Tide and Georgia. They want to improve those results with Muschamp watching.

"Our defensive players have responded. He's just trying to get to know our players, evaluate our current guys and our players have responded extremely well," Malzahn said.

"They're trying to impress him, trying to show what they can do. They're in evaluation mode and he's trying to evaluate what we have and thinking about next year and putting his pieces of the puzzle."

Auburn tied for 21st in the nation with 35.8 points per game and Wisconsin was 28th with 34.6.

The all-time series is tied at 1-1-1.

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