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Major Wager Bowl Preview Series: Cotton Bowl (Bowl #23)...By S.H. Austin

1/1, 11:30 a.m. ET FOX

Auburn by 2 points, total of 46

Auburn: 10-2
Nebraska: 9-4
Auburn looks to be the "Manchurian Candidate" team this season. No matter what happens on the field, pundits see a queen of hearts somewhere and start saying, "This is one of the best teams in the country." Phil Steele had them at #2 in his preseason annual even though they only returned 11 starters from a 9-3 team that didn't reach the SEC championship game and lost its bowl game by double digits. Athlon's preseason publication had them at #9 in the country, penciling in nine wins, no losses, and three coin flip games. Auburn was lucky to get by LSU early in the season with a 7-3 win (outgained 309-182). They barely survived South Carolina in a 24-17 win (outgained 349-307). They got drilled at home by Arkansas (outgained 366-213). They needed a miracle to beat Florida (two non-offensive TD's), they got annihilated by Georgia at home (outgained 446-171). Somehow, they kept bubbling back up into the BCS rankings. If wins were based on total yardage instead of total points, they'd be 7-5 this year, and everyone would be talking about firing the coach. Nebraska was #25 in Athlon, and #22 in Steele before the season started. The Cornhuskers met expectations this season, winning the Big 12 North and putting themselves in position to reach 10 wins.

Auburn: 25-14 versus the 31st ranked schedule
Nebraska: 32-18 versus the 58th ranked schedule
We listed some good opponents in that rant about Auburn. The schedule was weakened by non-conference outings against Buffalo, Tulane, and Arkansas State. It was still a tough schedule on the whole. We're not saying they're a pretender. We just don't get why people think they're some kind of championship threat. Elite teams don't get outgained at home 366-213 or 446-171 unless they've been ravaged by injuries. Think of Auburn as a 7-5 team against a tough schedule...not some kind of national superpower who needs to go back into the top five as soon as somebody else loses. Nebraska had home games against Louisiana Tech, Nicholls State, and Troy in non-conference action. A road game at USC helped toughen things up. The Big 12 North was kind of soft this year, so the slate only grades out as 58th toughest. If you face USC, Oklahoma, and Texas, you had some challenges that will get you ready for a bowl game, regardless of what the tune-up games looked like to a computer. Football followers who live in Big 12 country think Nebraska played a tougher schedule than they're given credit for.

Auburn: 5-7 versus the spread
Nebraska: 8-3 versus the spread
Though Nebraska was expected to win the Big 12 North this year, the public was slow to accept them as a real contender. Things had looked sluggish in the early years of the Bill Callahan era. People weren't ready to trust him yet. They should have been. Nebraska was 8-2 ATS before running into Oklahoma in frigid weather in the Big 12 title tilt. So...Nebraska matched pundit expectations but exceeded public expectations by a good degree. Auburn started the season with three covers, then went 2-7 ATS after that. The win over LSU was followed by three non-covers. The vultured win over Florida was followed by four non-covers. So, the public was responding to the hype in a way that hurt them badly. To be fair, playing very tight games with LSU and Florida isn't an insult. Those are BCS teams, obviously. The point is...Auburn had to play great defense and perfect on offense to be competitive with those guys. When they didn't, they were mortal. The media seemed to give them credit for their peak level rather than their normal level, while completely ignoring the bad games.

Auburn: +35.3, with a season turnover differential of +3
Nebraska: +85.1, with a season turnover differential of 0
Nebraska had monster yardage games against the patsies, which helped inflate this number. Their version of a pro-style passing attack really piles up the yardage. Sometimes the yardage has a bit of air in it. They're not as good as that statline suggests. But, you should lay points with them versus bad teams until further notice. We have respect for Auburn's schedule, so let's give them credit for positive numbers here. Our gripe is with the media, not the real positives that do exist. Give a team credit for being an A- or a B+, but don't call them an A+ when they're not. Solid A- or B+ numbers here.

Auburn: 13-10, awful for a national power, the QB was invisible
Nebraska: 28-7, strong numbers, inflated by patsy games

Auburn is a defensive-minded "Milton Berle" type team (see pre-series article) that tries to win field position games at the point of attack. If you can't stop the run, you're in trouble. If you can stop the run, you have a chance to hang with them. Actually, they play in such a way that they'll keep some teams within striking distance even if they can't stop the run. Auburn only beat Buffalo 38-7 as a 43-point favorite, and only beat Arkansas State 27-0 as a 31-point favorite. Auburn was 2-7 ATS when favored by 13-points or more, but 3-0 ATS at -3 or less. They were helped by a 3-7 turnover advantage in those small spread games, but they didn't look very good in total yardage. They did find a way to win though, which is what the run-based Berle teams are prone to do if they don't fall behind and have to pass (Auburn fell behind both Arkansas and Georgia and had no chance). Basically, Auburn plays the Rutgers style that we've referenced several times already.

Nebraska is unique. This coach is unique. Any attempts to classify them bring up a "yeah, but." They're thought of as a passing team, but they threw less than 30 passes seven times this year. Most passing teams coast into the 30's every week. They supposedly pass first and run second, but they topped 150 rushing yards in eight different games. You don't think of pass-minded teams as being good on defense. Nebraska held USC and Texas under 400 yards, and held seven opponents to 315 yards or less. If you call them a strong defense, the "yeah, but" shows 574 yards allowed to Kansas and 496 allowed to Oklahoma State. They're supposed to be explosive on offense, but the team didn't reach 30 points in six of their last eight games. From watching their games this year, the best description is to say that Callahan tries to be conservative in terms of risk and clock management, and tries to find a defensive weakness he can exploit. You'd think everyone does that, but many college teams don't. He brings an NFL mindset to the college game, making him tough to classify on a game-by-game basis.

Not a lot of ideal matches. Nobody plays similarly to Nebraska anyway. Both teams had some big games. Auburn couldn't move the ball in their big games, and tried to win with defense and turnovers. Nebraska really didn't move the ball well either against USC (10 points), Texas (20 points but three turnovers), and Oklahoma (7 points but five turnovers). We said earlier that Nebraska's run defense would be important. They held USC to 142 rushing yards on 4.6 ypc, Texas to 128 yards on 3.8 ypc, and Oklahoma to 42 yards on 1.5 ypc. The best way to run on Nebraska is to spread them out with the passing game. Auburn won't be able to do that. The Auburn quarterback was 4-12-4-35 and 6-14-0-137 in the last two games of the regular season. The big game comparisons suggest this is going to be a defensive battle.

Auburn should be okay. They may have expected to be playing in the BCS early on. They knew for awhile they wouldn't even get to the SEC championship game. Maybe they wanted a bigger name opponent. Teams aren't always excited about the Cotton Bowl either. There was talk somewhere in the media about people winning a free trip to the Cotton Bowl then refusing to go when it turned out to be Auburn-Nebraska. If the players think that way, it's bad news for Auburn.

Nebraska hasn't been to a big time bowl in a while. They should be motivated to play on New Year's Day. This is a program that travels well too. Expect a lot of red in the stands in Dallas. If there's an edge here, Nebraska has it.

Auburn lost to Wisconsin 31-10 in the Capital One Bowl (as a 10-point favorite), losing yardage 548-236 (yes, even with a month to prepare, 10-point favorites can get outgained by 300 yards in a bowl!)

Nebraska beat Michigan 32-28 in the Alamo Bowl (as a 10-point underdog), losing yardage 400-318.

Auburn is 2-3 ATS the last five bowl appearances, with the offense scoring 16 points or less four times. That speaks very poorly for coach Tommy Tuberville's offensive preparation. He's a defensive minded coach (not that you'd know that from the 548 yards Wisconsin gained last year). Total points in those five bowl games landed on 26, 22, 42, 29, and 34.

Nebraska's game last year was the first bowl appearance for the Bill Callahan regime. What happened before then probably won't have any relevant indicators.

Well, the data is just screaming Under here. Both offenses could have trouble moving the ball and scoring. Auburn's bowl history under Tuberville is very poor in terms of the offense. The weather in Dallas is never a sure thing. Some year's it's 60 and nice, other year's it' sleeting. We'll like an Under in the 60's and love it in sleet!

Yes, there's a chance that Callahan gets creative with a month to prepare and installs some gadgets. Yes, Auburn does have the ability to manufacture points with defense and special teams, no sure things in sports. The percentages certainly favor a low scoring game. Nebraska played below the Over/Under in their games with USC, Texas, and Oklahoma. Auburn games typically need a lot of cheap points to crack the 40's.

On the team side, we're more impressed with Callahan's ability to prepare for a big game than we are for Tuberville's. We're not ready to say that Nebraska is the better team. Wisconsin wasn't the better team last year. The value is with the dog in a defensive struggle. The value is with the more creative coach in a tight game. The value is with the team that brought a bunch of people wearing red. The value is with the team that public doesn't trust against the team the public overrates. All that, and it still projects to a nailbiter unless Auburn falls behind early and has to play catch up.

I'd rate the percentages this way:

65% that the game goes Under 35% that gadget plays and cheap points from defense or special teams takes it Over

25% that Nebraska jumps out the way Arkansas and Georgia did to take the flow of the game away from Auburn 30% that it goes down the wire and Nebraska sneaks under the number or wins a field goal game 45% that Auburn tops expectations (probably with help from defense or special teams)

That's 55% for Nebraska, and 65% for the Under.

S.H. Austin

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