The 15th TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl will host a fun cross-conference matchup Tuesday as the American Athletic Conference's Houston Cougars will take on the Auburn Tigers in Protective Stadium. These two teams have met six times, with Auburn holding a 5-1 series lead, although the last meeting was a 7-0 Tigers win in 1973.
The Cougars (11-2) took a step forward in 2021 under head coach Dana Holgorsen and advanced to the AAC Championship Game, where they lost to Cincinnati 35-20. Houston was a well-balanced team on both sides of the football. Offensively, the Cougars averaged 37.3 points per game, which ranked 15th in the nation, and they limited opposing teams to 297.2 yards per game. Houston joined Alabama, Georgia, Michigan, Coastal Carolina, and Cincinnati as the only FBS teams to finish in the top 15 in both of those categories. However, star cornerback Marcus Jones is skipping this game to prepare for the 2022 NFL Draft after averaging 34.0 yards per kick return and bringing back two kickoffs and punts for touchdowns along. His presence will be missed, since those hidden yards in the kicking game are invaluable in taking a ton of pressure off the offense.
Auburn (6-6) has had a roller-coaster ride of a first season under the leadership of head coach Bryan Harsin. The Tigers' best performance of the season was arguably in the Iron Bowl when they lost 24-22 to Alabama in four overtimes. The offense has fallen off after the season-ending injury to quarterback Bo Nix in the Mississippi State game. T.J. Finley has some nice athleticism but needs to be more consistent throwing the football in this game and moving forward. Harsin has hired a new offensive coordinator in Austin Davis, who was previously the quarterback coach for the Seattle Seahawks. Defensively, the Tigers were opportunistic, as their three defensive touchdowns were good for 12th in the nation. The big challenge for them moving forward will be playing at a more consistent level for 60 minutes each week.
TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl: Houston (11-2) vs. Auburn (6-6)
Kickoff: Wednesday, Dec. 28 at 12 p.m. ET
Where: Protective Stadium (Birmingham, Ala.)
Spread: Auburn -2.5
When Houston Has the Ball
Clayton Tune has been very productive at quarterback with 3,263 yards, 28 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. Nathaniel Dell is the leading receiver for the Cougars with 80 receptions, 1,179 yards, and 12 touchdowns. Christian Trahan, Jake Herslow, and Jeremy Singleton have chipped in a combined 12 receiving touchdowns. This group of playmakers provides competitive depth for the offense. Alton McCaskill and Ta'Zhawn Henry are a solid 1-2 punch in the running game, as they have combined for 1,409 yards and 23 rushing touchdowns. The offense will need to be balanced because you don't want the defensive line of Auburn taking over the game with relentless pressure on Tune.
The Tigers' defense comes into this game battle-tested since they have dealt with high-flying offenses like Alabama, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and others in the SEC. Derick Hall led Auburn with nine sacks and 12 tackles for a loss as the Tigers have 35 sacks this season. They will have to force the Cougars to be one-dimensional like in the Iron Bowl when they sacked Bryce Young seven times. Stopping the run kept the Tigers in that game as they held the Crimson Tide to 71 rushing yards on 37 attempts. Cornerback Roger McCreary's decision to skip the game to prepare for the NFL Draft could hurt the secondary in this game, so that is something to watch.
When Auburn Has the Ball
T.J. Finley needs to take what the Houston defense gives him and not force things in the passing game. Finley has completed 56.0 percent of his passes for 600 yards, five touchdowns, and one interception. Tank Bigsby was the leading rusher for the Tigers in the regular season with 1,003 yards and 10 touchdowns. Bigsby was a potential candidate to transfer, but Harsin and his staff found a way to sell him on the future to keep him on the plains for 2022. If Auburn is to win this game, it must put the game in Bigsby's hands and give him at least 20 carries to allow the offense to play keep away from Houston.
The "Third Ward Defense" needs to live up to its reputation in this contest to secure its 12th win of the season. Houston leads the nation in third-down defense. The Cougars have allowed teams to convert at a 25.6 percent clip, which is outstanding in this modern era of college football. Forcing negative plays could be a game-changer for the Cougars, and they have multiple players with at least 10 tackles for loss, led by Logan Hall with 13.5 and Derek Parish with 10.5. It would be a bonus for the defense to keep Finley and the Auburn offense in long-yardage situations all afternoon long.
If both teams come out ready to play, the game should hang in the balance heading into the fourth quarter. The Tigers' size and speed will be a factor as the game moves deep into the second half. Home-field advantage should come into play a little bit with the Auburn playing in-state just 145 miles away from campus. That intangible of the home crowd should eventually swing this game and propel Auburn to its seventh win of the season, but it won't be easy for the Tigers. As for the Cougars, they will miss Jones in the return game. That will cause them to come up just short against Auburn on Tuesday afternoon, as the offense will not overcome the Tigers' defensive front.