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GAME PREVIEW: Birmingham Bowl - Auburn vs Houston

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Game 13: Enjoy the final lap!

NCAA Football: Alabama at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

As bowls around the land get canceled because of Omicron, Auburn fans get to rejoice in the fact that they didn’t have to travel across the country to head to a bowl game that may or may not be washed anyway.

Yes, a trip to the Birmingham Bowl is a disappointment when viewed at the start of a season, or even at the end of October when the Tigers were 6-2 in full control of their destiny in the SEC. It’s still a bit of a disappointment, as we’re looking at it in comparison with Gus Malzahn’s worst season before his firing (2015), and also in his first year overall (mere seconds away from a national title).

However, this year, as we’ve lost our starting quarterback, and we have a new offensive coordinator who may or may not be intimately involved in bowl game prep, maybe the Birmingham Bowl is the right place for us. Maybe as we try to reset our expectations as Auburn fans, the Birmingham Bowl is a proper starting place.

We knew that Bryan Harsin wasn’t coming in to lead a team to a title in his first year. One look at the roster would tell you as much, but we thought we could have some success. And we did! There were some great moments this year! Auburn finally broke the streak in Baton Rouge, beat Arkansas and Ole Miss (both New Year’s Day bowl participants), and would have likely taken another Iron Bowl win with a healthy Bo Nix (or a facemask call).

In years past, we’ve seen Gus Malzahn and Terry Bowden essentially hit the ceiling in year one. Pat Dye won the SEC and should’ve won the national title in year three. Tommy Tuberville won the West his second season. Auburn fans are accustomed to winning a lot in the early tenures of coaches. And yet they all ended their time on the Plains with controversy or grumbling. Maybe it’s time that we rebuild from a realistic base. Heck, even Nick Saban (as much as I don’t want to compare us to them) lost to ULM and went 7-6 in his first season. He also ended the regular season on a four-game losing streak to finish at 6-6, and then ended up doing what he’s doing now. The point is, a baseline where you install your mindset, get rid of the non-conformants, and make sure that you’re in charge might not be the worst thing in the world. Let’s see if the boys who play tomorrow are the ones who’ve bought in to what Harsin is preaching behind the scenes.

While Houston is an interesting opponent for this game, unless you’re playing for some sort of title, the opponent in bowl games really doesn’t matter. It’s a study on oneself, and Auburn has plenty to investigate. Who will be the quarterback of the future, if he’s even on the roster? Are there any defensive studs to stand up and make waves after bowl practices? Who’s been established as a leader with upperclassmen heading out the door? There are a million different things to pay attention to even if the outcome ends up being something that doesn’t feel too good.

Hey, it’s a bowl game. I literally don’t remember a single play from the loss to Northwestern last year, or the loss to Minnesota the year before. We likely won’t remember much from this game unless every play is an 80-yard touchdown, and that’s fine. Here’s a chance for the guys on the team to work toward a common goal of getting better for 2022, and we get the privilege to watch them do it one more time. Sit back, enjoy a post-Christmas beverage, and watch Auburn football play on a Tuesday morning.

SERIES HISTORY: Auburn leads the all-time series 5-1, with every game in the series being played between 1956 and 1973.

LAST GAME: Previously, Auburn lost to Alabama in 4 overtimes 24-22, with an excruciating collapse down the stretch as the Tide drove the length of the field in the closing minutes to tie and then win in overtime. Houston lost to Alabama’s College Football Playoff opponent Cincinnati in the AAC Championship Game.

LAST MEETING: Auburn last met the Cougars in 1973 during the regular season, which turned out to be an 11-1 campaign for Houston. The one loss? You guessed it. A 7-0 defeat to the Tigers on the Plains. Houston would win the Bluebonnet Bowl over Tulane 47-7 that season, while Auburn fell to Missouri in the Sun Bowl.

KEYS FOR AUBURN:

  1. Manage the bowl preparation better than Gus Malzahn did. It’s no secret that Gus Malzahn didn’t seem to care about bowl games. Other than the BCS National Championship against Florida State, Auburn never hit the postseason with a sense of purpose when it came to springboarding into the following season. Look at the losses to uh... Wisconsin, and Oklahoma, and UCF, and Minnesota, and Northwestern. Dang B1G owned us save for that performance against a completely unmatched Purdue team. Gus lost two New Year’s Six bowls, one in which we were the better team, and one in which we had momentum (but Sean White broke his arm so I won’t blame Gus for that too much). Now we get to see how Bryan Harsin approaches this. Are there going to be wrinkles thrown in? What kind of equity will he take on the offensive side of the ball without an offensive coordinator to call plays? There are a ton of unknowns coming into this game, and Auburn doesn’t exactly have the gas to give me a ton of confidence that they’ll be able to seamlessly come up with something impressive. That’s where the last four weeks have to come into play. What has Harsin done, how has he stressed the importance of this game, and will he be better at motivation than his predecessor?
  2. The defense needs to string together a curtain call after the Iron Bowl performance. However you want to lay the Iron Bowl loss at Auburn’s feet, the defense is not responsible. They played the best game of the year, holding Alabama to 10 regulation points, when Georgia gave up 41 points, 536 yards, and essentially locked up a runaway Heisman win for Bryce Young. Auburn won’t have some of those guys who made hay against the Tide, as Zakoby McClain and Roger McCreary among others won’t be taking part in this bowl game. Still, the front seven should be able to have a big impact against a Houston team that’s not good at all at preventing negative plays. The Cougars are 111th in the land in sacks allowed (38 total, 2.92 per game), 123rd nationally in tackles for loss allowed (7.46 per game). Auburn will absolutely blow up the run, sack the quarterback, and likely create a havoc play or two in the process. They’ll need it because we’ll be looking at what shouldn’t be a huge offensive performance on the other side of the ball.
  3. Whoever is playing quarterback needs to make a strong pitch for the 2022 starting role. T.J. Finley will get the start, but word has been bandied about that Dematrius Davis has had a bigger role in bowl prep and that he’s gotten a few special plays installed. I’d be surprised if we don’t see both guys in the game tomorrow, but I’d like to see Davis get a shot at running the real offense and not a gadget play here and there. If we’re looking into the future, having Russell Wilson’s quarterback coach should fall right into Davis’ wheelhouse with the noted mobility. Who knows what impact Austin Davis should have on Dee Davis’ development just a couple of weeks in, but it can’t hurt. Finley didn’t show us much in the Iron Bowl, but the offense as a whole was struggling in that game. This is going to be an opportunity for either quarterback to take the game on his shoulders and show the fanbase something to generate some excitement heading into 2022 without Boseph Nix.

BETTING ODDS: According to DraftKings, Auburn heads into the game as a 2 point favorite with the total over/under set at 51 points.