Your favorite blog feature is back. I exchanged some questions with Giana Han of AL.com (you can read my answers here) ahead of Wednesday's Outback Bowl, where the No. 18 Gophers will fact No. 12 Auburn to end the 2019 season. Giana and I actually knew each other back when I covered Penn State in 2016, and she was a student there. So it was fun bumping into her again, as well as some of the Auburn reporters I remembered seeing during the NCAA tournament, when I followed Auburn through their regional and to the Final Four in Minneapolis.
MR: How would you describe the arc of Auburn’s season and what this Outback Bowl means to it?
GH: Since the beginning of the season, Auburn’s defense was playing at a high level, and the offense was constantly trying to catch up to it. It’s been a rollercoaster for the offense. They’d perform well against a good opponent like Texas A&M but then get crushed by a great opponent like Florida. Although the losses were “good losses,” they were still losses and they masked the progress the team was actually making. The LSU game was extremely disappointing for the program, so it’s easy to overlook that Auburn held LSU to the least number of points this season. It all started to come together at the end, though – specifically in the fourth quarter of the Georgia game. Since then, Auburn has played well in all phases of the game, and it’s heading into the bowl after playing it’s best ball.
Ever since Auburn suffered its third loss, it has changed its focus to a 10-win season. The Tigers have only had 13 10-win seasons in school history. The juniors and seniors have the chance to be a part of two of them if they win the Outback Bowl. Beyond that, the team is really focused on sending its seniors out with a bang, especially ones like Derrick Brown, who chose to return for their senior seasons.
MR: Who is an underrated player that should be on Gophers fans' radars?
GH: Everyone talks about Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson, but Big Kat Bryant is a huge part of what the line has been able to accomplish. He’s not easy to overlook because of his nickname, but the stat sheets don’t really tell the whole story. Bryant’s name is pretty far down on the list of Auburn’s leading tacklers. He only has 16 tackles and 1.5 sacks. The important stat is his nine quarterback hurries. Even though he hasn’t been able to get his arms around too many quarterbacks this season, he’s made them uncomfortable. Bryant is constantly in the passer’s face, and he might actually have more than nine hurries because every school treats that stat differently. Brown and Davidson say they expect even bigger things from him next season.
MR: Is Bo Nix > or < or = Bo Jackson? Explain.
GH: Bo Nix < Bo Jackson. That’s not to say he’s not good, but I don’t think there’s too much of a competition. Nix may become one of the best quarterbacks ever to play at Auburn. He might even win the Heisman, but I don’t think he’ll ever go down in the books for both the NFL and the MLB. Part of that is because of the age that Nix is playing in. Playing multiple sports is becoming frowned upon down to the high school level, so I’m not sure Nix would ever have that opportunity, even though he has baseball and basketball experience. Beyond just stats, though, Nix and Jackson have different personalities. Nix seems very nice and respectful, but he’s the consummate professional while Jackson is charismatic and a true personality.
MR: P.J. Fleck said he was expecting Gus Malzahn to pull out some different looks or trick plays this bowl game, something he’s known to do. What do you think the Gophers should expect from Auburn’s strategy?
GH: Auburn loves the wildcat, but that’s well-known, so I don’t know if it counts as a trick play. However, Gus Malzahn loves pulling out trick plays. They’ve been known to practice them for fun. The Alabama game was a great example. They tricked Nick Saban when they sent the punt team out but had the punter line up at receiver. That play helped them win the game, and it was completely legal according to a rules analyst. I can’t predict what he will do, but definitely keep your eyes peeled.
MR: How has your first season covering Auburn gone, and what’s been your highlight from bowl week in Tampa?
GH: My first season has definitely been a learning experience. Every time I catch the hang of something, there’s something new to learn. It’s also definitely a change of culture. The Big Ten and the SEC are different in many ways. So many people in the south like to tell me nothing compares to the SEC, but I’m not convinced yet. But it’s definitely fun to the different cultures and the different stadiums. There are really fun traditions, like seeing the War Eagle fly around the stadium.
Now that we’re in Tampa, the highlight so far has been going to the hospital with players from both teams. I love the reminder that it’s more than a game. The players were amazing with the kids. I got to meet guys from both teams. I was really impressed with Winston DeLattiboudere, Mohamed Ibrahim and Tanner Morgan’s interactions with the patients. They made a woman cry because they told her she inspired them. Also, both DeLattiboudere and I got a hug from an adorable three-year-old, and I saw the Auburn punter rock a baby to sleep. I’m not sure the bowl game can compare.