Birmingham Bowl preview: Memphis will look to notch its second win against an SEC opponent this season against Auburn after beating Ole Miss in October.
Auburn (6–6) vs. Memphis (9–3)
Dec. 30, Noon ET (ESPN)
Reason to watch
If you haven’t watched Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch play yet, this is your last chance—at least until he’s playing on Sundays. The 6’7” junior has been exceptional for the Tigers this season, completing 69% of his passes for 3,670 yards with 28 touchdowns and just three interceptions. Lynch wasn’t that high on draft boards entering this season but now is likely to be the first quarterback selected in the 2016 NFL draft. Whether you’re a college fan who didn’t catch Lynch against Ole Miss or in an American Athletic Conference showdown, or an NFL fan just starting to check out the top prospects, Lynch is not one to miss.
Keep an eye on: Who’s under center for Auburn
Will it be Sean White? Will it be Jeremy Johnson? Or will Gus Malzahn try to mix-and-match with both passers? White barely played in Auburn’s final four games of the regular season as he nursed knee and foot injuries, but Malzahn said Sunday the redshirt freshman is “close” to 100%. Neither quarterback had much success this season as White tossed just one touchdown in five starts, while Johnson lost the starting job after throwing six interceptions in the first three games. The junior has cut down on the turnovers since retaking the starting role after White’s injuries but has averaged just 6.8 yards per attempt over his past five games.
Did you know…?
Even though Memphis has not played Auburn since 1976, the Tigers’ coaching staff should have plenty of familiarity with Malzahn’s schemes. Incoming Memphis head coach Mike Norvell worked under Malzahn for two seasons at Tulsa, and defensive coordinator Galen Scott crossed paths with Malzahn at Tulsa for a year, too. Both Malzahn and Norvell come from Arizona State coach Todd Graham’s coaching tree, and while Norvell won’t coach Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl (interim coach Darrell Dickey will handle that), he has been observing practices.
For Auburn’s many disappointments this season, its pass defense was solid, as the Tigers’ secondary allowed just 6.6 yards per attempt. However, Lynch represents the best quarterback Auburn will have faced this season, and he already gashed a better SEC secondary (Ole Miss) for 384 yards and three touchdowns in Oct. 17. Auburn will look to counter with its ground game, which the Tigers relied on for 64% of their plays, but running room for Peyton Barber and Jovon Robinson could be scarce against a physical Memphis defense that allowed just 3.6 yards per carry this season and held Ole Miss to 40 yards on 24 carries. Malzahn may have some tricks up his sleeve and there’s the unknown of how Memphis will respond to its coaching change, but expect Lynch & Co. to get their second win over an SEC team this season.