Both teams will have new offensive coordinators when No. 12 Auburn and No. 18 Minnesota clash Wednesday afternoon in the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., but the Tigers will have had more time to adjust than the Gophers.
Former Arkansas head coach Chad Morris was named a few days before Christmas to replace Kenny Dillingham at Auburn after Dillingham took a similar post at Florida State.
But it wasn’t until the day after Christmas that it was announced that Kirk Ciarrocca was leaving the Gophers for Penn State.
Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck immediately named wide receivers coach Matt Simon to serve as interim offensive coordinator for the bowl with Greg Harbaugh, who had responsibilities for offensive quality control, to oversee the quarterbacks. Both served under Fleck at Western Michigan before coming to Minnesota.
“I trust those guys,” Fleck said. “If I didn’t think they could do the job, I wouldn’t let them do the job.”
Play-calling will be done on a “collective basis,” Fleck said, though Fleck is likely to assume more responsibility.
Morris, fired from Arkansas in late November, and his new boss at Auburn, Gus Malzahn, have ties that go back to the early 2000s when both were high school coaches in Texas and Arkansas, respectively, and Morris visited Malzahn to get insights on the new spread offenses that were beginning to emerge.
“In my opinion he’s one of the best offensive guys out there,” Malzahn said. “Our plan is for the bowl I’m still going to call the plays. Really he is still kind of getting acclimated, getting used to our players, and how we operate and all that.”
Both teams have shown capability on offense. The Tigers (9-3) averaged 34.0 points and 421.1 total yards per game this season and the Gophers 34.3 and 426.8, respectively. The key will come down to their defensive efforts, and the Tigers might have an edge there.
Though pass-rushing specialist Nick Coe is sitting out the game to prepare for the NFL draft, Auburn will have senior defensive tackle Derrick Brown (12.5 tackles for loss, 4.0 sacks) and defensive end Marlon Davidson (12.5/7.5) ready to go.
Brown, Malzahn said, has not had just a “good” season but a “dominant” one.
“Every time we played a big game,” Malzahn said, “he played his best ball.”
Minnesota, meanwhile, will be without linebacker Kamal Martin, who had 66 tackles (2.5 TFLs) and two interceptions despite missing four games to a knee injury. He is sitting out to prepare for the draft.
“Kamal had a tough decision to make in his last game with his knee,” Fleck said. “He needed to get some things fixed. He needed to clean some stuff up. He made a tough decision, but a decision’s got to be made and I support him 100 percent.”
Safety Antoine Winfield Jr., just the seventh unanimous All-America pick in Gophers history, will play, however. He had seven interceptions to go with a team-leading 83 tackles.
“He’s the ultimate competitor, the ultimate person, the ultimate football player,” Fleck said, “and he’s made us better.”
–Field Level Media