Nebraska against Auburn would be one of the most highly anticipated bowl clashes – if this was 1993 when both teams finished in the top five.
As it is, the game remains a pretty attractive matchup. Auburn entered the season with national championship aspirations and posted victories over LSU and Florida. Yet, home losses to Arkansas and Georgia prevented the Tigers from playing in the SEC Championship game.
Nebraska, which opened the season hoping to regain national prominence, made strides in that direction by winning the Big 12. However, the Cornhuskers went 0-3 against teams ranked in the top 10.
Cotton Bowl: Nebraska (9-4) vs. Auburn (10-2)
When: Jan. 1, 10:30 a.m. (CST) Where: Dallas TV info: Fox (Pat Summerall, Brian Baldinger, Krista Voda)
No. 22 Nebraska Cornhuskers Conference: Big 12 Record: 9-4, 6-3 Coach:Bill Callahan (22-14 in three seasons at Nebraska) Passing leader:Zac Taylor (219 of 365 for 3,071 yards, 25 TDs, seven INTs) Rushing leaders:Brandon Jackson (181 carries, 951 yards, 5.3 yards per carry, seven TDs) Receiving leaders:Terrence Nunn (41 catches, 589 yards, seven TDs) Defensive leaders: DE Adam Carriker (34˝ tackles, 27 solo, 13 for losses, six sacks, 11 QB pressures, four passes broken up)
No. 10 Auburn Tigers Conference: Southeastern Record: 10-2, 6-2 Coach:Tommy Tuberville (70-29 in eight years at Auburn) Passing leader:Brandon Cox (153 of 250 for 2,087 yards, 13 TDs, nine INTs) Rushing leader:Kenny Irons (174 carries, 821 yards, 4.7 yards per carry, four TDs) Receiving leaders:Courtney Taylor (48 catches, 634 yards, two TDs) Defensive leaders: DE Quentin Groves (37 tackles, 26 solo, 12 for losses, 9˝ sacks, seven QB pressures, three forced fumbles)
Nebraska running game vs. Auburn run defense: Having four running backs with at least 335 yards rushing suggests that Nebraska has a strong running game, but that might be too strong a description. The Cornhuskers' have solid backs. Brandon Jackson, who has rushed for 951 yards, leads the way. However, the offensive line isn't overpowering and the Huskers were held to fewer than 100 yards rushing by USC, Texas and Oklahoma. Nebraska was also held well under its 175-yard season average by Texas A&M and Kansas. Auburn's run defense has been dominant against lesser opponents and vulnerable otherwise. Relatively small up front, the Tigers relied on quickness to hold five opponents to fewer than 90 yards rushing. However, Arkansas and Georgia both ran for more than 209 yards against Auburn. Georgia's Kregg Lumpkin had one of his two 100-yard games against the Tigers. Even Tulane's Matt Forte hit three-digits against them.
Nebraska passing game vs. Auburn pass defense: Despite a sub-par outing in the Big 12 title game, Nebraska QB Zac Taylor had an excellent year. He completed 60 percent of his attempts and has thrown for more than 200 yards in the last six games. WR Maurice Purify has a load of talent, but doesn't get a load of passes thrown his way. Still, he averaged 18.8 yards per catch and scored seven TDs. Taylor has six receivers with at least 19 catches. Pass protection is an area of concern, with Nebraska having allowed 28 sacks. That doesn't bode well when facing Auburn DE Quentin Groves, a devastating pass rusher who recorded 9˝ sacks and three forced fumbles. CBs David Irons and Jonathan Wilhite are solid, but the Tigers have had coverage issues recently. They allowed more than 200 yards passing in their last two games and have only nine interceptions on the season.
Auburn running game vs. Nebraska run defense: Injuries have limited RB Kenny Irons, who missed two games and has managed only three 100-yard games (none in November). That's at least partially explains why the Tigers are averaging just 155 rushing yards, which is rather pedestrian by Auburn standards. However, the Tigers still have a big offensive line that features guards Tim Duckworth and Ben Grubbs. That sets up perhaps the game's most intriguing matchup against Nebraska defensive tackles Barry Cryer and Ola Dagunduro, a pair of run-stuffers who are big reasons the Huskers have allowed just 120.4 yards per game. The Cornhuskers held Oklahoma to 42 rushing yards in the Big 12 championship game, but have been burned for long gains by running QBs. That shouldn't be an issue against Auburn QB Brandon Cox, whose longest run of the year is 14 yards.
Auburn passing game vs. Nebraska pass defense: New offensive tackles, new receivers and two knee injuries have limited Auburn QB Brandon Cox, who was sacked 29 times this season and has thrown nine interceptions. Cox completed fewer than 43 perent of his attempts in the Tigers' last two games. His receivers have struggled to get open at times, but that issue should be eased now that WR Courtney Taylor has recovered from a hamstring injury which forced him to miss the regular-season finale against Alabama. Taylor's presence is vital. Erratic play at safety, physical mismatches against 5-foot-9 CB Cortney Grixby and a pass rush that's not as productive as a year ago have contributed to the Cornhuskers ranking 89th nationally against the pass. Ends Adam Carriker and Jay Moore can get pressure, but haven't gotten to the QB as often as they did last year when the Cornhuskers led the nation with 50 sacks. Eight of the last nine opponents passed for at least 220 yards against Nebraska.
Coach vs. Coach: During his eight years at Auburn, coach Tommy Tuberville's teams have endured just one losing season - and that was in his first year. He has fielded five teams which have notched at least nine victories, and he has won an SEC Championship. In just three seasons, Bill Callahan has changed Nebraska's run-oriented power attack to the West Coast offense, and has led the Cornhuskers back into the national rankings. However, the Cornhuskers are just 1-3 against teams ranked in the Associated Press poll this season. Callahan is 22-14 in his three years in Lincoln.
Nebraska will win if: The Cornhuskers must keep pressure off QB Zac Taylor, who threw three interceptions against Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game. Containing Auburn RB Kenny Irons will also be crucial. Any success Irons has running will enhance QB Brandon Cox's passing opportunities.
Auburn will win if: The Auburn defense allowed 200 rushing yards just twice this season, and not coincidentally those were the games the Tigers lost. Stopping the Cornhuskers running game will be a key as well as putting pressure on Taylor, who can pick defenses apart if given time. The Tigers must avoid obvious passing situations to slow the rush of Nebraska's DEs on Cox, who has limited mobility.
Injury situation: Auburn WR Courtney Taylor has recovered from a hamstring injury and should be at full strength. QB Brandon Cox has played with sore knees all season, but the month-long break should help. Overall, the Tigers are as healthy as they've been since the season-opener. Nebraska RB Brandon Jackson suffered a broken hand in the Big 12 championship game, but is expected to play. The Cornhuskers will also get a boost with the return of OT Matt Slauson (ankle) and guard Greg Austin (knee).
Worth noting: Auburn will be Nebraska's fourth opponent ranked in the top 10. The Cornhuskers are appearing in the Cotton Bowl for the first time since 1980, when they lost to Houston. … Auburn is without LBs Kevin Sears and Tray Blackmon and backup TB Brad Lester, who were indefinitely suspended for violation of team rules.
Line: Auburn by 2
Prediction: Auburn 24, Nebraska 21 Other Rivals.com Expert picks: Steve Megargee, national college football writer: Auburn 20-17. Bobby Burton, editor-in-chief: Auburn 24-7. Bill King, RivalsRadio host: Nebraska 24-13. Make your picks on Rivals.com Bowl Pick 'Em.