Bowl season kicks off Tuesday with the 2021 TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl. After facing a cancelation in 2020, the Birmingham Bowl is back with a highly-anticipated matchup between the AAC runner-up Houston Cougars (11-2) and the Auburn Tigers (6-6) of the SEC.
Despite a disparity in the records, this one is expected to have the makings of a close game. DraftKings lists Auburn as a 2-point favorite in the Birmingham Bowl and projects the contest to wind up on the lower scoring side, with a point total of 50.5*.
To discuss the matchup between Houston and Auburn, head coaches Dana Holgorsen and Bryan Harsin, as well as several players, took to the podium Monday in Birmingham for media day.
* Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.
Brand new building in Birmingham
Unlike previous Birmingham Bowls, the 2021 iteration of the game will not be held at Legion Field. Instead, this year’s event transpires at Protective Stadium, the new 47,000-seat stadium which serves as the home base for UAB. The venue broke ground in October and is set to host a sizable crowd for the Birmingham Bowl, which features a local team in Auburn.
“This Protective Stadium... they did a first class job on this stadium,” Holgorsen said. “I imagine there will be a lot of Auburn people here, but that just comes with the territory as far as where you play at from a geography perspective. It’s no different than when we had to go play at Cincinnati. We had a decent little following that came to support the Cougars and I expect the same thing.”
Auburn played in the 2015 Birmingham Bowl. Unsurprisingly, the game set its attendance record that season, drawing a crowd of 59,430 to watch Auburn defeat Memphis, 31-10. Auburn expects another crowd decked in blue and orange as the team travels roughly 110 miles away from campus to close its 2021 season.
“Our fanbase is tremendous. We know that from being at Jordan-Hare,” Harsin said. “We’re looking forward to having a packed house because it’s a great bowl game. It’s two good teams. It’s an opportunity for our guys to finish the season and also to do it right here in Alabama as well.”
Next man up
Houston’s rapid turnaround was largely in part caused by defensive improvement. The Cougars exhibit one of the most prolific defenses in college football, ranking 17th in containing the air and 11th in containing the ground. However, Houston will be without two of its top defenders for its postseason matchup. Defensive tackle Logan Hall and All-American cornerback Marcus Jones were the Cougars’ two opt-outs for the bowl game. To replace the electrifying Jones, the team looks toward cornerbacks Alex Hogan and Art Green to thrive in their increased opportunities.
“Anytime you lose a guy like Marcus it’s a hit, but that happens all the time whether it’s through injuries or graduation or whatever it is,” Holgorsen said. “Marcus did a great job when he was here but Alex and Art both have played a lot of meaningful football this year. Even when Marcus played in a lot of those games, (defensive coordinator) Coach (Doug) Belk did a great job of moving (Damarion) Williams to safety and Marcus to nickel which means are corners were Art Green and Alex Hogan. That happened a lot so those guys developed throughout the course of the year and they’re ready to become every down players for us.”
For Auburn, cornerback Roger McCreary, outside linebacker Zakoby McClain, and offensive tackle Brodarious Hamm are among its opt-outs. McCreary earned First Team All-SEC honors, while McClain made an appearance on the Second Team. Operating without the team’s top cornerback and leading tackler, Auburn is focused on ensuring the current group ends the season on a high note.
“The postseason is a privilege. Everybody’s situation is different. It’s about those guys in the room preparing to go play in this game,” Harsin said. “Anytime you’re working with a group of people that are finishing something, that’s the focus and you want to make sure you finish it right.”
Auburn offense vs. Houston defense
Auburn lost its primary starting quarterback Bo Nix to the transfer portal, but the Tigers still display valuable experience at the quarterback position. LSU transfer T.J. Finley started the final two games of the season for Auburn and totaled 600 yards, five touchdowns, and one interception in his sophomore campaign. While Finley is expected to start and receive the majority of reps, the Cougars are on alert for usage of Dematrius Davis — Auburn’s backup quarterback from the Houston area, who has yet to take a collegiate snap.
“Bowl games are like first games — you don’t know what to expect,” Holgorsen said. “We know Dematrius Davis is a great player. We recruited him out of high school and watched him win state championship after state championship after state championship. He brings a little bit of something different to the table for them so we’ll be prepared if that happens.”
In games Finley started, Auburn leaned heavily toward the running game. The Tigers are one of six SEC teams to currently showcase a 1,000-yard rusher in Tank Bigsby. The star halfback totaled 227 rushing yards in his two most recent games, and after allowing Cincinnati’s Jerome Ford to accumulate 187 yards in the AAC Championship Game, Houston must prevent Bigsby from doing the same.
“He’s a great back,” Anderson said of Bigsby. “Some guys on the team know him from Georgia. We expect them to go out and run the ball. We didn’t do our job last time with that, but we’ll do our job to try to stop him. He’s a great back though.”
One of the trademarks of the 2021 Houston defense is the ability to apply pressure. The Cougars rank fifth in the FBS in sack output, and they’ll be pitted against an Auburn offensive line which only yields 1.75 per contest. When it comes to positional matchups in the Birmingham Bowl, the clash between these two units should be the most vital.
“Every football game is won or lost in the trenches in my opinion,” Auburn tight end John Samuel Shenker said. “Obviously, they have a great team. You don’t win 11 games if you’re not a good football team. I think they’re a great pass rush team, obviously, but I think we’re ready to attack them in the trenches. That’s kind of our motto this week, to win the trenches.”