TAMPA, Fla. – Auburn and Wisconsin began the season with aspirations of competing in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
While the 19th-ranked Tigers and No. 17 Badgers fell well short of that goal, they're hardly disappointed to be playing in Thursday's Outback Bowl.
"I think one of the things that's overlooked with bowl games is the experience that the players have," Wisconsin interim coach Barry Alvarez said.
Auburn (8-4) is coming off a 55-44 loss to archrival Alabama, while Wisconsin (10-3) hopes to rebound from falling 59-0 to Ohio State in the Big Ten championship and abruptly losing coach Gary Andersen to Oregon State.
"Everybody talks about the four in the semifinals, and the championship game. But all these other bowls, you hear people say 'Who cares about them?'" Alvarez added. "Well, you know who cares about them? The players care about them. That experience is something you'll remember the rest of your life."
The Badgers approached Alvarez, Wisconsin's athletic director and the school's all-time winningest coach, about returning to the sideline to lead them in their fifth consecutive appearance in a January bowl. He accepted a similar plea two years ago, guiding the team in the Rose Bowl after Bret Bielema left for Arkansas.
"It's important because the players asked me. That's what we're in this business for — the players," said Alvarez, who hired former Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst as Andersen's replacement and spoke with the team about its blowout loss in the Big Ten title game.
"I told them I thought it was an aberration, that we're a good football team. We won 10 games," Alvarez said. "You try to get their confidence back and start getting them focused on this game."
Coach Gus Malzahn led Auburn to last season's BCS title game, where the Tigers lost to Florida State. He agrees with Alvarez that postseason games "can do nothing but help you."
"The way players and coaches look at bowls, no matter what bowl it is, it's very important," Malzahn said. "The extra practice time, especially for your young guys, is very important."
Here are some things to watch in the Outback Bowl:
Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon leads the nation in rushing and finished second in Heisman Trophy balloting. He has already declared he will skip his senior season and enter the NFL draft. He's scored 26 rushing touchdowns, 29 overall. If he scores at least one against Auburn, he will join Oklahoma State's Barry Sanders and Central Florida's Kevin Smith as the only players in FBS history to rush for 2,000 yards and also score 30 TDs in the same season.
Auburn gained 630 yards in its high-scoring loss to Alabama, the SEC's top defensive team. Quarterback Nick Marshall has tossed 18 touchdowns and run for 11 others. Cameron Artis-Payne led the SEC in rushing with 1,482 yards and 11 TDs. While leading receiver D'haquille Williams won't play after being suspended for violating team rules, Sammie Coates averaged 24 yards per reception.
Auburn is making its 39th bowl appearance, 16th on the all-time list. The Tigers are 22-14-1, 13th on the wins list. Wisconsin is in a bowl for a school-record 13th consecutive season, 26 times overall. It's the longest active streak in the Big Ten and seventh-longest in the nation. The Badgers are 8-4 under Alvarez, 11-14 overall.
View from the sideline
Chyrst has observed Wisconsin practices, getting familiar with players who'll be returning but will not coach Thursday. The same applies to former Florida coach Will Muschamp, who was hired as Auburn's new defensive coordinator after leaving the Gators.
It only the fourth time the two have played. The series is tied 1-1-1, with Auburn winning 28-14 in the 2003 Music City Bowl and Wisconsin winning the Capital One Bowl 24-10 in January 2006. A 1931 meeting in Madison, Wis., ended 7-7.