Northwestern is making its first trip to a January bowl game since 1997 because of the way it finished the regular season, but success in the postseason has eluded the Wildcats for decades.
Auburn didn't get as many big wins down the stretch in 2009, but the Tigers haven't had much trouble closing strong in bowl season.
The Tigers look to shake off a tough finish to SEC play with their sixth bowl win in eight seasons while the Wildcats try to snap a six-game bowl losing streak with their first postseason win since 1949 in the Outback Bowl on Friday.
Northwestern (8-4) stumbled early in 2009, suffering back-to-back losses to Syracuse and Minnesota teams that combined for 10 regular-season wins. But the Wildcats won six of eight following a 2-2 start, and they capped the regular season with three straight wins, including victories over then-No. 8 Iowa and then-No. 17 Wisconsin.
"We're definitely playing our best football of the year right now and with the layover we're going to have to make sure we keep our edge," coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
The Wildcats hope to deliver another victory as they try again to end a 60-year streak without a bowl win. They beat California in the 1949 Rose Bowl in their first postseason appearance, but they've dropped each of their six bowl trips since then -- all since the 1995 campaign.
Last season's 30-23 overtime loss to then-No. 25 Missouri in the Alamo Bowl was Northwestern's first bowl game under Fitzgerald, who has coached the Wildcats to their first consecutive eight-win seasons since he anchored their defense at linebacker from 1993-96. Fitzgerald lost two bowl games while playing at Northwestern.
"As long as we put forth the effort and play as a team we are going to be successful," said senior safety Brendan Smith, who will become the first player in Northwestern history to play in three bowl games.
"(A bowl win) would make my five years at Northwestern a huge success. I'd be very proud to be a captain who led this team to something this program hasn't done in a long time."
Auburn (7-5) hasn't had the same struggles in the postseason. It's won five of six bowl games since the 2002 season, with the lone loss coming against Wisconsin in the 2006 Capital One Bowl.
The Tigers didn't make a bowl game last season after dropping six of their last seven to finish 5-7, and they didn't completely resolve their struggles down the stretch this season under first-year coach Gene Chizik, losing five of seven after a 5-0 start.
However, three of those defeats came by seven points or fewer, including a 26-21 loss to then-No. 2 Alabama in Auburn's SEC finale Nov. 27. The Tigers didn't trail in that game until the Crimson Tide's touchdown with 1:24 remaining kept them undefeated.
Despite the disheartening finish to that game and the regular season, Chizik is thrilled to be playing on New Year's Day in his first year with Auburn. Chizik failed to reach a bowl in his two seasons at Iowa State before coming to the Tigers.
"What does everybody want? Everybody wants a New Year's Day bowl," said Chizik, a native of nearby Clearwater, Fla. "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."
Chizik, though, won't be able to rely on seniors Chris Todd and Ben Tate beyond this game. Todd ranks fourth in the SEC with 21 touchdown passes and has thrown only six interceptions, while Tate was fourth in the conference with 1,254 rushing yards. Together, they've led an Auburn team that's third in the SEC with 432.3 scrimmage yards and 32.9 points per game.
This will also be the college finale for defensive end Antonio Coleman. A two-time All-SEC first team selection, Coleman leads the conference with 15.5 tackles for loss and 9.0 sacks. He's third in career sacks at Auburn with 23.5.
That doesn't bode well for Northwestern's Mike Kafka, who was sacked 23 times -- tied for second-most in the Big Ten.
Despite the pressure in the backfield, the senior is third in the conference with 2,898 passing yards. He's thrown 12 touchdown passes and added seven rushing TDs en route to a place on the All-Big Ten second team.
Kafka will try to take advantage of an Auburn team that -- despite Coleman's strong individual efforts -- gives up an SEC-worst 26.9 points per game.
This will be the first meeting between the Tigers and the Wildcats. Auburn is 6-3 in bowl games against Big Ten opponents, while Northwestern lost its only previous bowl meeting with an SEC team, 48-28 against Tennessee in the 1997 Citrus Bowl. The Wildcats are 2-5-1 all-time against teams currently in the SEC.
Northwestern's lack of success against the SEC and its bleak bowl history have only contributed to the Wildcats' impression that they have some unfinished business heading into their finale.
"It's hard to talk about the season when it's not over yet," defensive end Corey Wootton told the team's official Web site. "We have one more opportunity. But I think the biggest thing is we want to be remembered as the first team to win a bowl game since 1949. We're focused on that goal"
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Auburn ended its first season under Gene Chizik by losing five of its last six SEC games, but that last loss was one of the Tigers' best performances of the season in a 26-21 setback to Alabama. Northwestern comes into this contest as the hot team, having won four of its past five games. Included in that stretch were wins over No. 4 Iowa and No. 16 Wisconsin.