TAMPA — In a college football season full of surprises, the Outback Bowl got into the act by pulling a mild upset of its own Sunday, selecting Auburn and Northwestern for the Jan. 1 game at Raymond James Stadium.
The Tigers (7-5) are the first Southeastern Conference Western Division team picked since Alabama competed in the 1997 game. Northwestern (8-4) was chosen over Wisconsin, a program known to have one of college football's largest fan bases.
"We're excited," Outback Bowl president /CEO Jim McVay said. "We have a terrific matchup. I think they're going to put on a heck of a show."
Though the participants didn't become official until Sunday, various media outlets in Alabama reported last week that Auburn was heading to Tampa. The Tigers had the same overall record as Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina and Tennessee, but because the bowl traditionally goes with a team from the SEC East, Auburn didn't appear to be a likely option.
But to bowl organizers, Auburn, which nearly knocked off undefeated Alabama two weekends ago, made the most sense.
"I think Auburn can play with anybody," McVay said.
Northwestern was just 2-2 at one point and had a loss to lowly Syracuse on its record. But the Wildcats got hot late, beating previously undefeated Iowa 17-10 on Nov. 7, then getting past Illinois (21-16) and Wisconsin (33-31). Northwestern and Wisconsin (9-3) tied for third in the Big Ten at 5-3.
Many bowl projections had the Badgers coming to the Outback. Wisconsin, which played in the 2008 game, averaged 80,109 fans per home game this season. Northwestern had a home attendance average of 24,190.
"Head to head was really the final decision." McVay said. "(The Wildcats) won the game, and they deserved to be there."
Both teams have high-powered offenses. The Tigers are led by standout running back Ben Tate; Northwestern has talented quarterback Mike Kafka.
The Outback will be a homecoming for first-year Auburn coach Gene Chizik, a Clearwater High alum. He said Sunday that his mother and many childhood friends still live in the area.
"It's always really neat to be able to go back to where you grew up," Chizik said. "For me, personally, it's going to be really exciting."