JAN. 1, NOON ET, RAYMOND JAMES STADIUM, TAMPA, FLA. (ESPN2)
Season highlights: The defending SEC champs picked up right where they left off last season, winning the first five games and taking down the likes of Arkansas, Kansas State and LSU in the process. During that stretch, the Tigers looked as dominant as any team in the country and were outscoring their opponents by an average score of 42-14. Despite a loss to Mississippi State in early October, Auburn climbed back up to No. 3 after a dramatic win at Ole Miss, which was easily the best win of the season for Gus Malzahn’s team.
Season lowlights: The brutal schedule finally affected Auburn down the stretch. The Tigers lost three of their last four, and the defense allowed 30 or more points in the last six conference games. No loss hurt more than the Iron Bowl, when Auburn coughed up a 33-21 lead to in-state rival Alabama and lost despite scoring 44 points and gaining 630 yards. That loss, coupled with the struggles in SEC play, ultimately cost defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson his job.
Player to watch: Take your pick on offense. Nick Marshall, Cameron Artis-Payne and D'haquille Williams all had sensational seasons, but the bowl will be Marshall’s last game at Auburn and maybe his final game at quarterback. The senior will likely have to change positions at the next level, but boy was he a perfect fit for Malzahn’s offense. He threw for 2,315 yards, rushed for 780 yards and scored a combined 29 touchdowns this season. It will be interesting to see how many reps Auburn gives to backup Jeremy Johnson, the quarterback of the future.
Motivation factor: After winning the SEC and playing in the BCS National Championship last season, this wasn’t what Auburn had in mind as an encore, but the Tigers typically come to play in bowl games. They had won five straight before last season’s loss to Florida State. This team has a nice mix of seniors looking to improve their draft stock and youngsters who will benefit from the extra practices. They will be a tough opponent.
-- Greg Ostendorf
Season highlights: The Badgers won seven straight games to run away with the Big Ten West Division title. That included a 59-24 smoking of Nebraska at home when tailback Melvin Gordon rushed for a then-FBS record 408 yards. Wisconsin ranked as one of the best defensive teams in the country all season and really started to take off once it settled the quarterback situation, with Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy forming a passing/rushing tandem.
Season lowlights: Wisconsin led LSU 24-7 in the third quarter of the season opener but ended up losing 28-24 as Gordon curiously disappeared in the second half. Even worse was an Oct. 4 loss at Northwestern, a team that would finish 5-7. Had the Badgers avoided that upset in Evanston, they might have been in the playoff discussion -- until they were destroyed 59-0 in the Big Ten title game by Ohio State in an embarrassing flop.
Player to watch: Gordon, naturally. He should finish no worse than second in the Heisman Trophy voting and is putting together one of the greatest seasons ever by a running back. He was the fastest FBS player ever to reach 2,000 yards, doing it in just 242 carries. Gordon also broke the Big Ten single-season record for rushing yards and could still break Barry Sanders' FBS single-season mark, which most people thought was untouchable.
Motivation factor: Wisconsin will have to recover from arguably the worst performance in recent program history after that evisceration in Indianapolis. The leadership on the team should be enough to ensure it bounces back. Despite all their recent regular-season success, the Badgers have come up short of late in the postseason, losing their past four bowl games. The upperclassmen in particular would like to change that.
-- Brian Bennett