It’s Tigers vs. Tigers as Auburn is set to face Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl.
Both teams faltered down the stretch, with Memphis losing three of its final four games and Auburn dropping two of its final three matchups. Auburn is attempting to avoid what would be just its third losing season since 2000.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has not presided over a team with a sub-.500 record since 1992. To finish the season on a good note, Auburn will have to contain one of the most prolific offenses in the country.
Auburn Tigers (6-6, 2-6 SEC) vs. Memphis Tigers (9-3, 5-3 American Athletic Conference)
Kickoff: Wednesday, noon ET (ESPN)
Weather: Cloudy, 58 degrees with a 50 percent chance of rain (weather.com)
Line: Auburn -3 (VegasInsider.com)
By the numbers
74 vs. 13
Auburn has given up 232.2 passing yards per game this season, which ranks them 74th nationally out of 128 teams. The secondary will be put to the test against a Memphis team that is 13th in the country with an average of 324.2 passing yards per game.
Memphis is led by junior quarterback Paxton Lynch, who could be headed for the NFL draft after the Birmingham Bowl. Lynch completed just less than 70 percent of his 406 passes this season with 28 touchdowns and just three interceptions.
Lynch spreads the ball around as three Memphis receivers have over 40 catches, so Auburn will need a strong effort from the entire secondary. It will also be key for Auburn’s defense to generate pressure on Lynch, but Memphis has only given up 15 sacks (tied for 18th nationally) despite a high volume of throws.
Auburn held three of its final four opponents under 200 yards passing while forcing five interceptions. A similar effort is needed against Memphis on Wednesday.
If Auburn can’t find a way to disrupt Lynch, the NFL prospect could add some more footage to his highlight reel.
Auburn’s offense has been predominantly powered by its rushing attack this season with running plays accounting for 64.7 percent of its offensive plays. But it may be difficult to run the ball against a Memphis team that only allowed one team to rush for more than 200 yards this season.
Memphis’ pass defense, however, has been vulnerable. The Tigers have surrendered 269.3 yards per game (116th) through the air while giving up 14 passing plays (114th) of 40 yards or more.
It was a struggle for Auburn’s offense to generate long passing plays in the regular season, as it finished with just 28 completions of 20 yards or more. For comparison, Memphis had 55 such plays and Western Kentucky led the country with 76.
Auburn will likely have to convert on some deep passes to keep a stout Memphis run defense honest.
Storylines to watch
Who will take most of the quarterback snaps for Auburn?
Here’s a shocker: Auburn has not named a starting quarterback. If it was not clear, that was sarcasm.
There has been uncertainty about who will start between junior Jeremy Johnson and freshman Sean White in virtually every week since White replaced Johnson as the starter in Week 4 against Mississippi State.
The freshman started five games in a row before a left knee injury opened the door for Johnson to return to the starting role for the final four games of the season. Auburn was 2-3 in the games White started and 4-3 in the games that Johnson occupied the role.
White’s injury status has improved since the regular season ended, although he was still wearing a brace on his knee in practice this week. Malzahn indicated that both quarterbacks could play and Memphis coaches are preparing for that scenario.
White was able to develop a rhythm in his five starts, but Johnson’s play improved in his second stint. The 6-foot-5 signal-caller threw six interceptions in the first three games of the season, but just one in his last four starts.
We’ll see which passer gets the nod Wednesday.
Lance Thompson’s first game as interim defensive coordinator
As Auburn’s search for a permanent defensive coordinator continues, this game will feature two coaches in temporary roles.
Lance Thompson, who served as Auburn’s linebackers coach this season, will call the defensive plays. Memphis offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey will be coaching the team in place of Justin Fuente, who left for Virginia Tech. Memphis recently hired Mike Norvell to replace Fuente for next season, and Dickey will return to his role as offensive coordinator.
Thompson fills in for the departed Will Muschamp, who made the move to Columbia, S.C., to become South Carolina’s head coach. The defense began to make strides in the latter half of the season under Muschamp, so the team will be trying to finish well heading into next season.
It is certainly not an easy opponent for Thompson to make his debut, but if the defense performs well, it will be an impressive feat for Thompson to add to his resume.
Will weather impact the game?
Massive thunderstorms hit the Birmingham area over the past week, causing flooding and thousands of residents to reportedly lose power. Inclement weather on Monday forced Auburn’s practice to be held indoors.
As of now, there is a 50 percent chance of showers in the forecast. Ball security concerns could come into play for both teams.
The weather could end up having a minimal impact on the outcome, but it is worth keeping an eye on the conditions as the kickoff nears.
Prediction: Memphis 41, Auburn 30
If it comes down to field goals, both teams will be confident. Auburn kicker Daniel Carlson and Memphis kicker Jake Elliot are two of the most accurate in the nation. The two kickers have both converted on 22-of-26 of their field goal attempts.
The extra two weeks to prepare should help Auburn’s offense, but it may not be enough to keep up with an explosive Memphis unit.
That will be the difference as Memphis escapes Birmingham with a victory.