SQ Birmingham Bowl Preview
As bowl mania hits its final stretch this week, some of the more interesting matchups are starting to appear the slate. One game to watch is the Birmingham Bowl, which features Memphis and Auburn. And while both teams haven't had the season they expected, this game offers the chance to end the season on a high note. Here's what you need to know for the game:
Storylines Heading Into The Game
Justin Fuente Heads to the Power Five: Just one year after guiding Memphis to a share of the American Athletic Conference title, head coach Justin Fuente used his success to land the job at Virginia Tech. Fuente has coached the Tigers to a 19-6 record the past two seasons and garnered the team's highest ranking in school history. Unfortunately for Memphis, they will be without him as he has already taken post in Blacksburg to begin the rebuilding of the Hokies.
Auburn's Expectations Washed Down the Drain: Auburn wasn't supposed to be playing in the Birmingham Bowl, well at least not according to experts at the beginning of the season. The addition of Will Muschamp was supposed to solidify the defense and make the Tigers contenders for a national title. Those hopes quickly died as Auburn struggled to find consistency on either side of the ball. The result was a 6-6 season, including a 2-6 mark in the SEC. Clearly, it was not the season that Gus Malzahn had intended.
Will Muschamp Out After One Season: Bringing on Muschamp was predicted to be one of the best marriages between an offensive guru (Malzahn) and a defensive whiz. And although the results on the field weren't what Auburn hoped for, there was reason to believe that things could turn around in 2016.
Tigers fans will never know what could have been with a second chance now that Muschamp will be taking over at South Carolina. It was a move that caught most off guard, given Muschamp's lack of success as the head man in Florida, but nonetheless, he will be given another opportunity in the SEC East.
670 - The amount of rushing yards that Memphis gave up during its three-game losing streak. Prior to that collapse, Memphis gave up just 118.75 yards per game. Navy and Temple really took advantage of the undersized front seven that Memphis has, and Auburn can do the same with Peyton Barber and Jovon Robinson.
2,786 - The amount of passing yards that Auburn has given up this season. Auburn was one of the worst in the SEC at defending the pass, coming in at 12th in this category. When Auburn goes up against Memphis, they'll be facing the best QB they've seen all year, Paxton Lynch. Lynch has already dismantled the Ole Miss defense through the air (384 yards, three touchdowns); it seems likely that Auburn could suffer the same fate.
49 - Auburn's total amount of tackles for loss this season. Auburn has done a miserable job at getting in their opponent's backfield this season, and that's going to be a problem if it can't get a good pass rush going against Lynch. The Tigers have struggled to get off their blocks, no thanks to DE Carl Lawson's injury. With Lawson back, hopefully Auburn can at least make Lynch uncomfortable in the pocket.
Paxton Lynch, QB, Memphis - NFL scouts have been drooling over the potential they see when they look at Lynch. His 6'7 frame coupled with a rocket attached to his right arm make him a lethal weapon with the ball in his hands. Lynch's great season is also the product of an offensive line that has done a great job of protecting him (just 15 sacks allowed this season). With the protection the line provides, Lynch can carve up the secondary, finding his trio of receiving threats (Mose Frazier, Anthony Miller, and Phil Mayhue) that each average over 11 yards per catch.
Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn - It's been noted above how much Auburn's pass rush has suffered this season, and with Lawson out for the first half of the season. things weren't looking up. When Lawson is at full strength, he can be one of the best edge rushers in college football. And while he hasn't recorded a sack since returning from his injury, he has accounted for seven QB hurries over the final five games. The Tigers will need him to get into Lynch's face throughout the game and get him to use his legs more than he would like.
Why Memphis Wins
Memphis can win this game from the standpoint that it has the most offensive fire power. The Tigers have one of the best QBs in the country in Lynch and have a solid running game that averages over 180 yards per game. The sheer ability this offense has to keep drives alive (49.47% third down conversion rate) could propel them to a victory. And while the defense was exposed against Temple and Navy, it just needs to bend enough to keep the offense ahead.
Why Auburn Wins
Auburn has the ground-and-pound attack that can limit the amount of opportunities that Lynch and the Memphis offense get. The Tigers average 191.75 yards per game on the ground and both Barber and Robinson have a size advantage against the front seven of Memphis. If Auburn can control the clock with the run game, it could be the difference in deciding the game. One thing Auburn's defense must do to win the game is to get Lynch out of the pocket more than he wants to be. Lynch may be a good runner, but he's more dangerous as a passer.
This game could very well turn into a shootout. Memphis possesses one of the best offenses in the country, scoring 42.7 points per game, but Auburn possesses a run game that could give the Memphis defense plenty of fits. All in all, it's going to come down to which team controls the possession battle. If Lynch has ample opportunity to score, then Memphis will hand Auburn another loss and cap a disappointing season for the more southern of the Tigers.
Final Score: Memphis 30 - Auburn 27