Birmingham Bowl: Auburn Tigers vs. Memphis Tigers
Date: Dec. 30, Noon ET on ESPN
Location: Birmingham, Ala. | Legion Field
Best moment: There weren’t a lot of great moments for Auburn this season, not for a team that fell so short of expectations. But the best performance came on the road at Texas A&M, where Auburn notched one of its two SEC victories. The Tigers rushed for more than 300 yards, getting back to what has made them so successful under coach Gus Malzahn. Quarterback Jeremy Johnson didn’t turn the ball over, and the defense finally seemed to turn the corner, forcing three turnovers and holding the Aggies to 10 points.
Lowest moment: Here’s a tip – don’t talk trash to Leonard Fournette before you’re about to play him. Better yet, don’t even answer a question if asked about him. Auburn safety Johnathan Ford said the week of his team’s game against LSU that stopping Fournette “shouldn’t be that difficult.” All Fournette did was rush for 228 yards and three touchdowns in LSU’s 45-21 win.
Key player: When healthy, Carl Lawson is as dominant a player as there is in the SEC. Auburn fans would love to see the sophomore defensive end wreak havoc in the bowl game. But be careful what you wish for. Lawson has the talent to make the jump to the NFL, and he’s eligible after sitting out last year due to injury. Health has always been an issue, but if he puts on a show in the bowl game, he might convince some NFL teams to take a chance on him.
Motivation level: Again, this was a team expected to compete for an SEC championship, with dreams of the College Football Playoff or, at the very least, a New Year’s Six bowl. So the motivation to play in a lower-tier bowl game can’t be that high. The only positive is that Auburn will get an extra month of practices, which should benefit the younger players as they look to turn the page on this season and move on to next year.
-- Greg Ostendorf
Best moment: After a 5-0 start, Memphis looked like a nice story out of the Group of Five. But when the Tigers thumped No. 13 Ole Miss on Oct. 17, they became one of the nation’s biggest stories and, for a few weeks, a dark-horse playoff candidate. Paxton Lynch threw for 384 yards and three touchdowns in that win, erasing a 14-0 first-quarter deficit and running off 31 straight points before the Rebels found the end zone again midway through the third quarter.
Worst moment: Memphis was 8-0 when it welcomed Navy on Nov. 7 in what figured to be a battle for AAC supremacy. It turned out to be all Midshipmen. Navy ran wild, racking up 374 yards and five touchdowns on the ground, and Lynch simply couldn’t get the Tigers offense going. It ended in a 45-20 defeat, the first of three straight losses for Memphis.
Key player: No doubt it’s Lynch. The losing streak sunk his Heisman candidacy, but at 6-foot-7 and 245 pounds, Lynch is a behemoth at QB — tough to bring down and capable of dissecting teams from inside the pocket. For the season, he threw for 3,670 yards and 28 touchdowns, tossing only three interceptions.
Motivation level: Limited. It’s Lynch’s last game in a Memphis uniform, and that’s meaningful. The Tigers can also get to 10 wins for the second straight season. But with coach Justin Fuente headed for Virginia Tech and the bubble of lofty expectations burst, it’s fair to wonder how much is left in the tank for the Tigers.
-- David M. Hale