TAMPA — Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has great admiration for his seniors, and it's easy to understand why.
During the past five years, the Wildcats have 34 victories (the most by any five-year class since the early 1900s), are the first class of seniors to make three bowl appearances and have posted 17 wins the past two seasons, the third-best two-year total in Northwestern history.
"When those 21 (players) leave, our team will change," Fitzgerald said. "Our dynamic will change."
Putting team first: First-year Auburn coach Gene Chizik said the Tigers' defining moment occurred a few weeks before the season began.
After a heated race to be the starting quarterback in the preseason, senior Chris Todd won the job over junior Kodi Burns. There was buzz Burns might transfer, but after requesting to address the team, he set the record straight and supported Todd.
"I'm not going anywhere," Burns told the Tigers.
"He got a standing ovation from 125 kids," Chizik said.
Burns, primarily a receiver now, has four catches this season for 23 yards and one touchdown.
Respect for opposing QB: Auburn DB Walter McFadden, one of the players tasked with trying to slow Northwestern's passing attack, says good things about Wildcats QB Mike Kafka, particularly his athleticism.
"He's mobile," said McFadden, a senior from Pompano Beach. "He reminds me a lot of Jarrett Brown from West Virginia."
Might that be a good omen for the Tigers?
Auburn defeated West Virginia 41-30 on Sept. 19. Brown passed for 221 yards and rushed for 66 more but was intercepted four times.
For Chizik, two on top: Asked Tuesday about the top players his team faced this fall, Chizik went with Alabama RB Mark Ingram, the Heisman Trophy winner, and Ole Miss RB/WR Dexter McCluster.
McCluster, a Largo High alum, had 186 rushing yards on 22 carries in an October loss to Auburn.
"He's one of the best all-around players in the country," Chizik said.
Purple pinstriper: One former Northwestern assistant arguably is Tampa's most well-known resident — New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. He helped coach Northwestern's winless 1955 team. Word from the Northwestern sports information department was that Steinbrenner would try to stop by a Wildcats practice this week.
Odds and ends: The mother of heralded Northwestern DL Corey Wootton played basketball at Auburn in 1979-80 (she was then Lori Hackman). … This is Northwestern's second trip to Florida for a bowl game; the Wildcats lost to Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl after the '96 season.