Previewing Auburn’s Birmingham Bowl Matchup Versus Houston

By Wil Crews

What do you get when a team with no offensive coordinator, a recent exodus of players and a disappointing season meets a team that will approach the matchup like it’s the Super Bowl?

That would be none other than the Ticketsmarter Birmingham Bowl between Auburn (6-6) and No. 21 Houston (10-2) at Protective Stadium on Dec. 28.

The last time we saw the Auburn Tigers they nearly upset the No. 3 Alabama Crimson Tide in the 86th edition of the Iron Bowl.

The Tigers fell in 4OT and the loss moved first year head coach Bryan Harsin and his team to mediocre 6-6 on the season. The weeks since have been anything but easy-going.

Shortly after the regular season concluded, Auburn offensive coordinator Mike Bobo was scapegoated and fired. Just recently, three-year starter at quarterback Bo Nix announced he was entering the mystifying transfer portal and subsequently leaving Auburn. Experienced running back Shaun Shivers has also already completed a move to Indiana via the portal.

But, we are here to focus on what Auburn does have and how they may fare against the Cougars from Houston.

The loss of Nix is erroneous to the Tigers in terms of the on-field bowl game product. LSU transfer T.J. Finley filled in for Nix during the home stretch of the season and performed well at times. Although he suffered an ankle injury of his own against the Tide, Finley should be ready to play against Houston and give the coaching staff confidence to execute a familiar game plan.

Without Shivers (whose role was more limited this season than predicted), Tank Bigsby, and freshman Jarquez Hunter are poised for a big workload. He flashed plenty of potential throughout the year and looks ready to occupy the lead role in the rushing attack. 

For Houston, under head coach Dana Holgorson, the Cougars have had clear strengths and weaknesses this season. The American Conference runner-ups rank No. 6 nationally in time possession, and boast a passing offense that ranks top-25 nationally in terms of pass yards per game, pass completion percentage and yards per pass.

Defensively, Houston has a well-rounded unit. The Cougars rank No. 12 nationally in rush yards allowed per game, No. 25 in pass yards allowed per play and No. 21 in turnovers forced per game.

Compare that to what has been an inconsistent Auburn team which ranks No. 52 in pass yards per game, No. 76 in rush yards per game, No. 38 in rush yards allowed per game, No. 95 in pass yards allowed per game and No. 124 in turnovers forced per game, and the Cougars have the advantage on paper.

However, some things are clearly in the favor of the Tigers.

For starters, Auburn should dominate the ticket sales for this matchup as Auburn will travel just over two hours and Houston is a 9 hour and 33-minute drive away from its bowl location.

Secondly, although Houston has the edge “on paper”, the Tigers have faced much stiffer competition this season which has inflated their defensive averages and deflated averages on the other side of the ball.

The home crowd advantage should play right into Auburn’s favor as the Tigers have been the tidier of the two teams throughout the season, averaging just 45.5 penalty yards per game compared to Houston’s 65.5.

Apart from that, it’s hard to find many silver linings in the numbers that tell spectators Auburn will win this game. Add on the fact that Harsin has been incredibly busy on the recruiting trail — something that can be said about every coach in this time of the year but rings more true to Auburn due to its current circumstances — and fans have to wonder how motivated the Tigers will be for this game.

The biggest reason is to avoid Auburn’s first losing season since 2012.

Overall, the Tigers have made nine straight bowl appearances (tying a program record), but to little success of their own. When they take the field on Dec. 28, the Tigers will be trying to snap their current four-game losing streak and a two-game bowl losing streak (They have only won one out of their last five; four out of the last six.).

Momentum has been trending in the wrong direction for Auburn over the course of the past few weeks. A good showing in the early national signing day period and a bowl game win would go a long way in flipping the script.

The Tigers hold a 5-1 historical advantage over Houston, with the last meeting going Auburn’s way in a 7-0 home victory in 1973. The cards on the table look different this go-around.

As of now, Auburn is a 1.5-point favorite as the Magic City plays host to the Tigers and the Cougars on Dec. 28 with kickoff set for 11 a.m. CST.