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Three questions heading into the 2021 Birmingham Bowl

Can Houston win its first bowl game since 2015 without the contributions of a consensus All-American?

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

The 2021 Houston Cougars season has been a special, resurgent year for the program under head coach Dana Holgorsen. For the first time since 2015, the team attained double-digit victories. For the first time since 2015, the team appeared in the AAC Championship Game. But one feat Houston has not achieved since 2015 involves winning a bowl game.

The Cougars receive the opportunity to break its 4-game bowl skid Tuesday when battling Auburn in the TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl. Houston exhibits a 12-2 record while Auburn is middling at 6-6. Yet, the Tigers are pegged as the projected winner in their home state.

According to DraftKings, Auburn is slated as a 2-point favorite over Houston*. Similar to Houston, the Tigers have struggled in bowl games recently with a 2-6 record since 2013. One of those wins was the 2015 Birmingham Bowl when Auburn pulverized a 9-3 Memphis team in 31-10 fashion despite entering with a 6-6 record.

Before the game kicks off Tuesday, we investigate three of the most pressing questions entering the 15th iteration of this bowl game.

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

Who steps up in place of Marcus Jones?

Houston features a consensus All-American on its roster, but the Cougars won’t have the luxury of Marcus Jones in Birmingham. One of the nation’s best cornerbacks and return specialists opted out of the remainder of the season to focus on NFL Draft preparation, so Houston must find ways to replace his production. As a cornerback, Jones accumulated five interceptions (tied for second most in FBS) and a team-best 13 pass deflections. As a return specialist, Jones is the only player in the country to run back multiple kick returns and multiple punt returns for touchdowns in 2021.

Houston’s defense operated without Jones twice this season. In games against Rice and Navy, Holgorsen opted to play Jones as a receiver instead of cornerback and other defensive backs received valuable playing time as a result. One of those corners is Alex Hogan, who should be a key cog in the Birmingham Bowl. The former Texas Tech recruit registered two interceptions this season including a 91-yard pick six in the Rice game when Jones’ contributions were limited to offense and special teams. Hogan also proved vital against an SMU offense with heavy wide receiver utilization, tallying a career-best eight tackles against the Mustangs.

With the depth chart shifting after Jones’ departure, another cornerback required to step up is junior Art Green. He accumulated 15 tackles this year and also corralled an interception in the Rice game.

On special teams, the featured kick returners are set to be wide receiver Nathaniel Dell and running back Ta’Zhawn Henry. Dell and Henry rank second and third on the Cougars in kick return yardage this season, fielding a combined 17 kickoffs. Since Jones fielded every Houston punt this year that was not blocked, the fulfiller of that role is more ambiguous. Dell seems like the prime candidate to replace the AAC Special Teams Player of the Year, but whoever functions as the punt returner has massive shoes to fill since Jones ranks sixth in the FBS in punt return average.

What type of game should we expect out of T.J. Finley?

Bo Nix started the first 10 games of the season for Auburn, but the third-year starting quarterback recently announced a transfer to Oregon. Thus, T.J. Finley — the team’s starter for the team’s final two contests — will retain his role as the No. 1 quarterback for the Birmingham Bowl.

Finley completed 56 percent of his passes in the regular season with 600 passing yards, five touchdowns, and one interception. His first notable moment at Auburn transpired when he sparked a comeback in Week 4 against Georgia State. Finley shed off a potential fourth down sack and threw the game-winning touchdown to upend the Panthers. In November, he recorded starts against South Carolina and Alabama. Although Auburn lost both games, the LSU transfer showed signs of promise throughout. Against the Crimson Tide, he delivered two touchdown strikes and nearly guided the Tigers to a landmark upset over the current No. 1 team in the rankings. However, Alabama prevailed in four overtimes.

Alabama v Auburn
Auburn quarterback T.J. Finley has a season-high of 188 passing yards and a career-high of 271 passing yards. The latter occurred during his 2020 campaign at LSU.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Finley’s mobility was limited that game due to an injured ankle, but that injury has healed significantly over the past month. With Finley remaining in the lineup, what should be expected of the Auburn offense?

The 6’7” quarterback threw for 188 and 137 yards in his two starts, so Houston shouldn’t anticipate the Tigers to rely on the aerial attack for 300+ yards. Instead, the Cougars should prepare for a series of crossing routes and quick screens, so open field tackling will be an important facet of the defense when pitted against Auburn.

Even with a healthy ankle, Finley doesn’t leave the pocket too often as a rusher. He has five career rushing yards and has only surpassed 10 yards with his legs once — a 16-yard scamper vs. Georgia State. Thus, designating a QB spy in the Houston defense doesn’t appear to be an optimal strategy.

Auburn has shown an inclination to keep things grounded with Finley in the lineup. Running back Tank Bigsby averaged 25.5 carries in Finley’s starts, and that average exceeds his maximum amount of attempts in games Nix started this season (23). If recent trends persist, Houston’s 11th ranked rushing defense will have plenty of work cut out for them with Bigsby serving as the focal point of Auburn’s offense.

Can Houston limit crucial second half turnovers?

Houston is 11-2. Without costly second half interceptions, the Cougars may have secured an undefeated regular season record and possibly challenged Cincinnati in the AAC Championship Game.

Quarterback Clayton Tune tossed four picks in the opener against Texas Tech, and the Red Raiders cashed in those turnovers for 17 points. Such mistakes prevented Houston from finishing the regular season unbeaten. Even after a disastrous outlier performance, Tune responded with poise and proved why he’s one of the premier quarterbacks in the AAC. Tune refrained from throwing an interception in eight of his regular season games, unlocking the potential of Houston’s offense en route to an 11-1 record heading into the AAC Championship Game.

In the AAC Championship Game, Houston hung tight with Cincinnati in the first half due to stellar play from Tune. However, one costly third quarter interception in a one-score contest swung the momentum into Cincinnati’s favor. Bearcats inside linebacker Joel Dublanko snagged a line-drive bullet pass to stall the Cougars’ offense, and Cincinnati answered with a touchdown two plays later to open the deficit to 15 points. If Houston manages to avoid these errors, the Cougars will be a completely different team in Birmingham.

Auburn doesn’t force many turnovers, as the Tigers are situated in the bottom 10 of the FBS with a mere 10 takeaways this season. In order to secure its first bowl victory since 2015, Houston must ensure Auburn does not add to that total, especially in a tightly-contested second half. When Tune is playing at a high-level, Houston’s offense enters a new gear. He boasts a 68.5 percent completion rate and displayed an incredible touchdown-to-interception ratio of 24-to-4 during the 11-game win streak.

The 2021 Birmingham Bowl kicks off at 12 p.m. ET on Tuesday, Dec. 28 at the brand new Protective Stadium. The contest between Houston and Auburn will be broadcast on ESPN.