Most fans will view Auburn’s 6-6 regular season record as a failure, but there is still a chance to end the season on a high note with a win over Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl on Dec. 30 at Legion Field.
Here are two keys for Auburn to knock off Memphis:
1. Contain Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch
Auburn draws the unenviable task of facing one of the best quarterbacks in the nation in Memphis junior Paxton Lynch. It is not the ideal time for interim defensive coordinator Lance Thompson to make his debut, but there is no choice after the departure of former defensive coordinator Will Muschamp to South Carolina.
Lynch set a Memphis school record for passing yards (3,670) and touchdowns (28) this season and is considered one of the top quarterback prospects in the upcoming NFL draft. Lynch also protects the ball well with just three interceptions despite 406 attempts.
Auburn was just below average in defending the pass this season, finishing 76th nationally in yards allowed threw the air per game. Seven of Auburn’s 12 opponents threw for 224 or more yards, but three of Auburn’s final four opponents were held to less than 200 yards passing.
Auburn’s defensive backfield may want to double-knot the laces on their cleats, because they will be busy during this game. Memphis has three receivers with 40 or more catches, so the Auburn’s defensive backs will be tested in multiple one-on-one matchups throughout the contest.
Auburn’s defensive improvement in the late stages of the season was aided by the ability to force turnovers. Eight of its 13 interceptions came in the final six games on the schedule. Lynch is not prone to making mistakes, so any takeaways will be crucial in a game that could see a lot of points.
2. Convert big plays in the passing game
Just one of Memphis’ opponents rushed for more than 200 yards in a game this season, but its passing defense was another story.
Memphis finished the regular season 116th out of 128 teams in passing yards allowed per game (269.3) and tied for 114th with 14 passing plays of 40 yards or more allowed this season.
Auburn struggled to connect on long passing plays with just 28 completions of 20 yards or more. For comparison, Memphis had 55 such plays and Western Kentucky led the country with 76.
Freshman Sean White should be healthy enough to play after missing games down the stretch because of a left knee injury. Auburn has yet to announce a starter, but it is possible that White and junior Jeremy Johnson will man the quarterback duties for the Birmingham Bowl. Johnson started the final four games.
Regardless of who starts at quarterback, Auburn will likely try to establish its running game with sophomore Peyton Barber and junior Jovon Robinson. 64.7 percent of Auburn’s offensive plays came on the ground, but it may be difficult to run the ball against the Memphis defense if there is not a consistent threat in the passing game.
It has been Auburn’s least productive offensive season under coach Gus Malzahn, but for the Tigers to win, it will likely need to rediscover the explosiveness that fans have been accustomed to in previous years.