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2021 Birmingham Bowl Preview: Houston Cougars vs. Auburn Tigers

Cougars look to cap stellar season with first bowl win since 2015.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 04 American Championship Game - Houston at Cincinnati Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Game Notes

  • Time and Date: Tuesday, December 28 at 8:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: ESPN
  • Location: Protective Stadium — Birmingham, AL
  • Spread: Auburn (-2.5), per DraftKings
  • Over/under: 51.5, per DraftKings
  • Houston moneyline: +105, per DraftKings
  • Auburn moneyline: -125, per DraftKings
  • All-time series: Auburn leads, 5-1
  • Last meeting: Auburn 7, Houston 0 — October 27, 1973

* Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.


Setting the scene

The Birmingham Bowl is the second of three matchups on the 2021 bowl docket to feature an SEC team and an AAC member that is also a future Big 12 institution.

Houston and Auburn both dropped competitive matchups to College Football Playoff qualifiers in their most recent outings, but one of the programs will rebound with a coveted bowl victory in Central Alabama. Head coaches Dana Holgorsen and Bryan Harsin accounted for several bowl victories at their former stops, but both program leaders hope to garner their first trophy at their current university.

Unlike past Birmingham Bowls, this one won’t transpire at Legion Field. The setting will instead be UAB’s brand new 47,000-seat venue, Protective Stadium, which showcased its first football game as recently as October.


Houston Cougars outlook

Houston finally experienced the season it envisioned when hiring Dana Holgorsen to a lucrative deal on New Year’s Day of 2019. The Cougars overcame a Week 1 defeat to Texas Tech and rattled off 11 consecutive victories and secure a spot in the AAC Championship Game for the first time since 2015. While a disappointing Cincinnati downed the Cougars by two scores in the conference title matchup, this has still been a special campaign for Holgorsen and Co. However, the season can be improved upon with the addition of a trophy. Houston doesn’t have much hardware to display from recent postseasons, and the Cougars aim to win their first bowl game since 2015.

Offense

Houston demonstrated the ability to pile on the points during its 11-game win streak. The Cougars enter Birmingham as the 13th strongest scoring offense in the country, posting an average of 37.3 points per contest.

Quarterback Clayton Tune delivered his greatest season to date, and he currently holds a 68.5 percent completion rate with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 28-to-9. Tune’s 5-game stretch from Oct. 7 to Nov. 13 featured 14 touchdown passes and zero picks, and that sequence unleashed Houston’s offense at the peak of its powers. As time progressed, Tune regained mobility while recovering from an early-season injury. This facet of his game was heavily utilized against Cincinnati and the quarterback creates more plays by scrambling around the pocket as each calendar day passes.

Tune’s aerial game is essentially the engine of Houston’s offense. Running the ball is by no means a liability, but the Cougars rank 85th in rushing yards per game with an average of 3.8 yards per carry. Still, true freshman Alton McCaskill has demonstrated much promise in his first season out of high school. The Conroe, TX native is 117 yards away from reaching 1,000 and he is a certified touchdown machine with 16 rushing scores this year — good for ninth in the FBS.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 04 American Championship Game - Houston at Cincinnati
True freshman running back Alton McCaskill produced a pair of 120-yard rushing games in November in his opening act to the collegiate game.
Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The most prominent skill position player on this offense is the team’s leading receiver, Nathaniel “Tank” Dell. The 5’10”, 155-pound star ranks first on the Cougars in every major receiving category by a longshot. His 80 receptions, 1,179 yards, and 12 touchdowns are more than double of anyone else on the team. When Dell isn’t the targeted receiver, Houston’s typical options are wideouts Jeremy Singleton and Jake Herslow (893 combined receiving yards and nine combined receiving touchdowns), or tight end Christian Trahan (second on the team with 34 receptions).

Defense

Led by defensive coordinator Doug Belk, vast improvement on the defensive side of the ball allowed the Cougars to capture their winningest season since 2015. Permitting 21 points per game, Houston boasts the 25th best scoring defense in college football. The Cougars excel in a multitude of areas on defense, exhibiting the 17th and 11th ranked units in stopping opponents’ passing and rushing attacks, respectively.

Unfortunately for the Cougars, they’ll be lining up without their All-American. Marcus Jones cited NFL Draft preparation as a reason for opting out of the remainder of his best season to date. Recognized as the Paul Hornung Award winner for most versatile player in the nation, Houston will miss his presence in multiple facets of the game. One of those areas is on special teams, as Jones is the only player in the FBS with multiple kick return and multiple punt return touchdowns this season. Additionally, he serves as the Cougars’ premier cover corner and is tied for second in the nation with five interceptions.

Houston’s other starting cornerback, Damarion Williams, will operate as the team’s shutdown specialist with Jones out of the lineup. Williams is situated as second on the unit in tackles and touts a stat-line which includes eight pass breakups and an interception this year. One other significant name in the secondary is zone coverage master Gervarrius Owens, who was showered with All-AAC honors for totaling 44 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and a pair of interceptions this year.

NCAA Football: Navy at Houston
Cornerback Damarion Williams will hold a larger role with Marcus Jones out of the lineup for the Cougars.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Cougars contain the run at a high level, holding membership in an exclusive group of teams to allow under 107 rushing yards per game. Much of Houston’s tackling around the line of scrimmage stems from inside linebacker Donavan Mutin, who shook of a brutal injury in late November to return for the AAC Championship Game. Also, the Cougars wreak plenty of havoc on the defensive line, a unit which inspired the defense’s branding as “Sack Ave.” Fittingly, Houston ranks fifth in the FBS in sacks per game, and the four players that accrue the most are all featured on the defensive line — defensive ends D’Anthony Jones and Derek Parish lead the way with 11 combined sacks in 2021.


Auburn Tigers outlook

Auburn’s first season under longtime Boise State coach Bryan Harsin launched to a promising 6-2 start. While a potential Sugar Bowl bid appeared on the table for the Tigers after a 31-20 win over Ole Miss, November brought a brutal reality to the plains. Auburn dropped each of its final four games, and several of them were in gut-wrenching fashion. After blowing a 28-3 lead to Mississippi State and losing in four overtimes to arch-nemesis Alabama, the Tigers look to right the ship in the Birmingham Bowl. The Tigers must win to claim their first bowl win since 2018 and to extend their streak of eight consecutive winning seasons.

Offense

Auburn recently lost its starting quarterback of three years, Bo Nix, to the transfer portal. Nix took his talents to Oregon, leaving T.J. Finley as the undisputed starting quarterback for the Birmingham Bowl. Finley is set to start the Tigers’ season finale after playing on an injured ankle in the Iron Bowl, where he nearly guided Auburn to a massive upset over eventual SEC champion Alabama. The former LSU quarterback started the final two games of the regular season, and albeit losses, he showed some poise with three touchdown passes and skillful decision making in those starts.

NCAA Football: Auburn at South Carolina
T.J. Finley started Auburn’s final two regular season games and will look for his first win as the Tigers’ starting quarterback this Tuesday.
Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Around the time Nix entered the portal, rumors suggested another key transfer in the offense was on his way out. However, running back Tank Bigsby shut down such chatter and committed to remain at Auburn. The 1,000-yard back was an essential piece to the Tigers this year, producing five 100-yard games and 10 rushing touchdowns as a sophomore. Bigbsy’s 140 yard performance against Ole Miss was his most important to date and he’ll look to replicate that against Houston’s relentless run defense.

The Tigers’ 63rd ranked yards per game offense produces numbers hovering around the FBS median in both the air and ground. While Bigsby is the definitive leader of Auburn’s rushing attack, the wealth is distributed rather evenly across the receivers. Three different receivers currently display between 35 and 40 receptions and between 474 and 523 yards. Kobe Hudson leads the pack in both receptions and yardage, but Houston’s shorthanded secondary must also keep tabs on Shedrick Jackson and Georgia transfer Demetris Robertson in order to stifle the entire group.

The offense didn’t trend in a favorable direction as the regular season wound to a close, accruing 3, 17, and 10 points in the regulation period of three of its final four outings. Re-energizing the unit in bowl practices is essential to recover from an ugly November and topple Houston.

Defense

While Auburn’s offense witnessed a rough finish to the regular season, the defensive unit strung together several sharp performances in spite of the team’s 4-game losing streak. The Tigers did not yield an offensive touchdown in a 20-3 loss to Texas A&M and they limited Alabama’s fourth ranked scoring offense to a mere 10 points prior to the overtime periods.

Auburn yields 22.2 points per game with a particular specialty in suffocating opposing running backs. The Tigers field a top 20 defense in rushing yards allowed per carry, and they stand among the top 10 in fewest touchdowns allowed on the ground. The same story cannot exactly be said for the secondary though, which surrenders 242.7 yards per game to quarterbacks at a 64.3 percent accuracy clip.

If there’s one way to increase the stock of this Auburn defense, it involves heightened turnover production. The Tigers are one of the bottom 10 FBS teams in takeaways produced and the only other bowl eligible team with that distinction is Kentucky. However, smart offensive football caused Auburn to cough up only 11 turnovers this season, so the Tigers’ differential of -1 is not of concern.

Similar to Houston, the Tigers bring a powerful pass rush to the table in this matchup. Auburn produces 2.83 sacks per game and edge rusher Derick Hall has the most sacks to his name of any player in this matchup with nine. Hall and the Tigers’ front seven hold plenty of real estate in opposing backfields with the 14th most tackles for loss in the FBS. Lining up on the other edge is another dangerous backfield invader in T.D. Moultry. That combination should provide ample concern for a Houston offensive line which gives up 2.92 sacks per game.

Syndication: The Montgomery Advertiser
Derick Hall erupted against Alabama for a season-best three sacks. Hall recorded a share of a sack in 10 of 12 games this season.
Gary Cosby / USA TODAY NETWORK

Auburn will be missing a pair of prominent starters on defense. Outside linebacker Zakoby McClain and starting cornerback Roger McCreary are among the list of Tigers to opt out of the remainder of the 2021 season. Without notable faces in the linebacking corps and secondary, that calls on the team’s star safety Smoke Monday to fulfill the skillsets left behind in those vacancies. Monday provided excellent pass coverage with five pass breakups and an interception during Auburn’s regular season. Yet, the senior can hit like a linebacker and many running backs were stopped in their tracks during Monday’s eight tackles for loss this year.


Prediction

Auburn is somewhat of a wild card pick every time it takes the field. Although the Tigers will be without several crucial defensive starters, when they play at their peak on that side of the ball, not many offenses can get their way.

The high level of play from Auburn on that side of the ball cannot go unnoticed during its November losing streak. The Tigers produce sacks and tackles for loss at a high rate, and the matchup against Houston’s offensive line suggests Auburn is ready to amplify those numbers in Birmingham.

For Houston, the key to victory involves preventing turnovers. Second half interceptions have played a major role in pushing the Cougars toward both of their losses this year. With a talented passing attack, Houston certainly can expose the Auburn secondary without Roger McCreary. However, quarterback Clayton Tune should face a heap of pressure throughout this one from the Auburn front seven, so emphasizing screens and quick passes is of utmost importance.

Auburn’s defense will be the prevailing unit in Birmingham, and that’s how the Tigers will emerge in a close, low-scoring affair against the AAC runner-up.

Prediction: Auburn 24, Houston 20