Memphis, QB Paxton Lynch face Auburn in Birmingham Bowl
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) Paxton Lynch and the Memphis Tigers have one more chance to make a statement this season. Auburn's just seeking a happy ending.
Memphis (9-3) and its star quarterback are aiming for another win over a Southeastern Conference team in Wednesday's Birmingham Bowl against Auburn. Then the focus largely turns toward Lynch's future.
The junior is regarded as a potential top five NFL draft pick if he opts to turn pro. Memphis interim coach Darrell Dickey said Lynch met with then-coach Justin Fuente about his future with some five games remaining, and has spoken to incoming head man Mike Norvell as well.
''I think he's done a terrific job when you realize that there's so much speculation and so much attention and every time you turn on the TV, ESPN, they're talking about he's shooting up the prospective draft boards,'' Dickey said Tuesday. ''His entire focus is on this game.
Auburn (6-6), meanwhile, expected much more than a two-hour trip to Legion Field from this season. The team was a popular pick to win the SEC but the season fizzled beneath struggles at quarterback and on defense.
Now, that defense will be tested by perhaps the best passer it's faced this season.
''I've played a lot of great players and great quarterbacks,'' Auburn linebacker Kris Frost said. ''He definitely ranks up at the top. He does a lot of things. He can threaten the defense in a whole lot of ways. He's a big guy that can run as well as throw the ball.''
Lynch matched an NCAA bowl record with seven total touchdowns - four passing and three rushing - in last season's Miami Beach Bowl.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn hasn't had a losing season in 10 seasons as a college head or assistant coach, two years after leading his team to the national championship game.
''The only thing that's on my mind is our team and trying to do everything in our power as coaches to help these guys win a bowl game,'' Malzahn said
Memphis, which has already knocked off No. 16 Mississippi from the SEC, is actually a slight underdog against Auburn (6-6) despite having a chance to post consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time. Memphis linebacker Wynton McManis said that's nothing new to his team, once 13th in the playoff rankings.
''We just have to do our best and go out and continue to prove that University of Memphis football is serious and we're a big deal,'' McManis said.
Memphis will wear green ribbon stickers on the helmets recognizing Alabamians affected by recent flooding.
Here are some other things to watch in the Birmingham Bowl
QB MISMATCH: Lynch had seven first-half touchdown passes against SMU in the regular-season finale and 28 on the season, against just three interceptions. Auburn's Jeremy Johnson (nine) and Sean White (1) have combined for 10 TD passes. Malzahn said he would announce his starter shortly before the game but indicated White's injured knee is close to 100 percent healthy.
CONVERSIONS MATTER: Memphis has been one of the nation's best at converting third downs, while Auburn's defense has struggled to get off the field in those situations. Auburn opponents are converting 45.3 percent of their attempts, 109th nationally. Memphis, meanwhile, ranks nine with a conversion rate of 49.5 percent.
COMEBACK KINGS: Don't count Memphis out prematurely. The team overcame deficits to win five straight games this season, including Kansas, Bowling Green, Cincinnati, South Florida and Mississippi. The five comebacks after being down double digits ties UCLA (2005) for the most in the FBS since North Carolina State did it six times in 1996.
COACHING SUBS: Both teams have coaches filling new roles for the game. Besides Dickey, Memphis has graduate assistant Michael Bangtson coaching the offensive line and intern Jack Nuismer working with the special teams for the bowl game. Auburn hasn't replaced defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. That leaves linebackers coach Lance Thompson running the defense and GAs Travis Williams (linebacker) and Blake Gideon (secondary) coaching positions.
TOP KICKERS: If this game comes down to the kickers, both teams are in good shape. Auburn's Daniel Carlson and Memphis's Jake Elliott were finalists for the Lou Groza Award. Both have made 22 of 26 field goal attempts while Carlson has hit four from 50-plus yards.