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Auburn back in a bowl

Photo by Scott Chancey

Photo by Scott Chancey

Northwestern and Auburn parlayed strong finales into a trip to Tampa, Fla., for the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day.

Northwestern (8-4) is coming off a 33-31 upset of No. 24 Wisconsin 33-31 that prompted fans to storm the field after the team's third straight victory, including a stunner at No. 10 Iowa. Auburn (7-5) led No. 1 Alabama until the final two minutes before losing 26-21 to end coach Gene Chizik's debut regular season.

"Our fan base right now and our coaches and our players ... we are so jacked-up about this and it's going to be a great following," said Chizik, a native of nearby Clearwater, Fla. "I know it's a great bowl because I'm from down there and I get all that. It's going to be a great week.

"We can't stand it, we're so excited."

Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats are playing in their second straight postseason game after an overtime loss to Missouri in last season's Alamo Bowl. Northwestern is 0-6 in bowl games since winning its first one, the 1949 Rose Bowl, but is on a roll now.

"Were definitely playing our best football of the year right now and with the layover were going to have to make sure we keep our edge," Fitzgerald said.

"It means the world to me for our seniors," he said. "Weve got 21 great seniors. This is their last opportunity to put on the purple and white and to do it on Jan. 1, I dont know if you could write a better script for the finale."

He figures plenty of Northwestern fans will happily head to a warmer locale for the game between the Big Ten and Southeastern Conference.

"We fully anticipate the 'Purple Nation' invading Florida," Fitzgerald said.

The two teams have never met.

Auburn wound up with a losing record in 2008 and sat out the postseason. The Tigers turned it around despite a roller-coaster season, winning their first five games before losing three straight. They lost their last two against Georgia a0nd the Crimson Tide. The last game was played on the day after Thanksgiving, allowing Fitzgerald to get his first glimpse of the Tigers in "one whale of a football game."

Auburn hasn't played in the Outback Bowl since a 43-14 loss to Penn State in 1996, the first year under the game's current name. That was also the last time the bowl had selected an SEC West team.

Northwestern has never played in the game.

Chizik's mother, Rita, still lives in Clearwater, about 25 miles from Tampa.

Besides the homecoming, he said the New Year's game was a big first step for a program trying to build a foundation.

"What does everybody want? Everybody wants a New Year's Day bowl," Chizik said. "It's in a great place. It's just phenomenal for our fans. This is a reward for our fans, who we think are the best in the country, and for our players.

"I think it's huge for the program in terms of where this thing is going down the road."

Outback Bowl President/CEO Jim McVay said there were "a lot of neat things about" the Tigers that led to their selection after six SEC teams finished with 7-5 records.

"A lot of really, really good things kept coming up for Auburn," McVay said.

Auburn tight end Tommy Trott said the team "just erupted" when the Tigers learned they were going to Tampa.

"It was a total surprise," Trott said.

As for Northwestern, the Wildcats were chosen ahead of Wisconsin largely because of the head-to-head factor.

"They won the game so they deserve to be here," McVay said.

Defensive end Corey Wootton took pride in being chosen over a team like Wisconsin.

"I think it says a lot about the respect we're starting to gain as a program," Wootton said. "We're just excited to represent the Big 10 in a premier bowl."