Tampa, FL (SportsNetwork.com) - Auburn was set to play in the BCS National Championship Game and Paul Chryst was finishing up his second season at Pittsburgh this time last year.
The landscape at the start of 2015 is decidedly different for both parties, as the 19th-ranked Tigers settled for playing in the Outback bowl against Chryst's new team, the 17th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on Jan. 1.
The Tigers were once again in the title picture this season before a late- season collapse. While its offense put up big numbers on a weekly basis, Auburn's defense was not up to par, which cost coordinator Ellis Johnson his job just hours after the Tigers surrendered 55 points to rival Alabama in the Iron Bowl.
That loss dropped the Tigers to 8-4 overall and was their third straight conference setback. They wound up allowing 32.8 ppg against conference opponents and finished 4-4 against them.
Charlie Harbison will serve as the defensive coordinator on New Year's Day, but newly hired Will Muschamp was with the team during practice this month and will certainly be tuned in for the finale. Head coach Gus Malzahn knows his defensive players are under the microscope.
"They're trying to impress him, trying to show what they can do," Malzahn said of the recently-fired Florida head coach. "They're in evaluation mode and he's trying to evaluate what we have and thinking about next year and putting his pieces of the puzzle."
Linebacker Cassanova McKinzy finished second of the team in total tackles (82) and first in tackles for loss (10). Defensive back Jonathan Jones recorded three of the team's SEC-best 19 interceptions and was named to the All-SEC First Team.
While the defense will undoubtedly be in good hands under Muschamp in the near future, there's not much Auburn's offense can improve upon after putting up 35.8 points and 489.2 yards per game. Nine more points would give Auburn 439 on the season, which would rank third in school history behind the 2010 and 2013 squads.
The offense is anchored by First-Team SEC center Reese Dismukes and boasts a talented backfield in Nick Marshall and Cameron Artis-Payne.
After guiding the Tigers to within one late Florida State drive of a national title his first year under center, Marshall again showed his dual-threat ability by throwing for 2,315 yards and adding 780 more on the ground. He accounted for 29 total touchdowns, 18 through the air, and needs just 37 rushing yards to pass Phil Gargis for the most by an Auburn QB.
Artis-Payne led the SEC at 127.7 rushing ypg and scored 11 touchdowns, while leading receiver Duke Williams, a junior college transfer, leads the Tigers with 45 receptions for 730 yards (16.2 yds/catch) and five TDs. Williams has been struck with an illness over the break and has not practiced. His status for the game is unknown.
As far as special teams go, Auburn finished third nationally at 17.8 yards per punt return thanks to Quan Bray, who took two back for touchdowns.
The Tigers are 22-14-2 all-time in bowl games, while Wisconsin is 11-14 in the postseason.
Twelve of those bowl appearances came with Barry Alvarez as the Badgers' head coach. Alvarez, the school's athletic director, is serving as interim head coach for this game as Chryst gets acclimated with the program after being hired on Dec. 17.
"A number of the seniors met with me...and asked if I would consider coaching the team," Alvarez said. "I feel this gives our assistants an opportunity to concentrate on getting the team ready for a very good opponent in Auburn. My goal is to make sure our players, especially the seniors playing their last game, have a memorable experience and we do everything we can to prepare to win the game."
Chryst is taking over for Gary Andersen, who decided to leave for Oregon State following the Badgers' embarrassing 59-0 loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game.
Melvin Gordon was held to 76 yards in that forgettable contest, soiling what was otherwise one of the most prolific seasons by a running back in FBS history. Gordon, who has a year left of eligibility, rushed for a then-FBS record 408 yards against Nebraska in November and ended the season with an FBS-leading 2,336 yards rushing, the fourth-best total all-time.
He finished as a runner-up to Heisman Trophy-winner Marcus Mariota, and one touchdown in the Outback Bowl will give Gordon 30 on the season. Only Oklahoma State's Barry Sanders (1988) and UCF's Kevin Smith (2007) finished with at least 2,000 rushing yards and 30 TDs in an FBS season.
Corey Clement has served as an adequate backup to Gordon, totaling 830 yards and eight TDs, while Tanner McEvoy, the team's second-string QB, has added 572 yards and six TDs on the ground.
Joel Stave (79-of-136, 1,042 yards, eight TDs, four INTs) is not asked to do a lot through the air, but when he does, he often looks for wide receiver Alex Ericson, who has 44 receptions for 651 yards and three TDs, or tight end Sam Arneson, who brought in 25 passes for 331 yards and four TDs.
The blowout to Ohio State was an outlier for Wisconsin, which ranked fourth in FBS in total defense by allowing just 283.2 ypg. The Badgers also ranked No. 13 in scoring defense (20.0 ppg), No. 17 in rushing defense (118.9 ypg) and No. 5 in passing defense (164.3 ypg).
This bowl has pitted programs from the SEC and Big Ten against each other since 1995, and the former has won four of the last five years.
Auburn and Wisconsin met in the Capital One Bowl nine years ago, and the Badgers earned a 24-10 victory in what, incidentally, was Alvarez's final game in his 16-year tenure as head coach.