12:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Auburn -2.5, Over/Under: 52.0
With Christmas in the rearview, the bowl season rolls towards the new year with the Birmingham Bowl, as the (No. 21) Houston Cougars are set to face off with the Auburn Tigers in a midday matchup from Protective Stadium in Birmingham, Alabama. It’s always rewarding to see patience pay off, which is a sentiment that the faithful at Houston (11-2, 8-1 in AAC) must be sharing given the evolution of their football program through three years under (Head Coach) Dana Holgorsen. The 50-year-old arrived two years ago in a surprising hire, resigning from his post at West Virginia, returning to a school in which he served as Offensive Coordinator from 2008 to 2009. Though some viewed the move as a step backwards for the coach, returning to the state of Texas and its fertile recruiting grounds at a university that he had history with, along with deeper pockets, made a lot of sense, and after laying some considerable groundwork has now reaped the benefits of said labor. In his first two years in Southern Texas, he went just 7-13, including 5-9 in conference play, marking the first time since 2002 that Houston had suffered back-to-back losing campaigns. However, there were circumstances that played a role in their struggles; in 2019, (All-AAC Quarterback) D’Eriq King lasted just four games before falling out with the coaching staff and deciding to transfer, while 2020 was of course mired by the COVID-19 pandemic, robbing the team of a proper offseason and causing eight games to be cancelled. Coming into 2021 it was time to show progress for the excuses were indeed gone, and to the delight of many around the program the Cougars made a sizeable leap in winning eleven games for just the fifth time in school history. After a mistake-laden 38-21 loss to Texas Tech on a neutral field in the season opener, Holgorsen’s charges proceeded to run off eleven consecutive victories resulting in a spot in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game, where they ultimately fell to undefeated (No. 4) Cincinnati, who as we know are the first non-Power-5 school to advance to the Playoff. Granted, the schedule was far from arduous with just two ranked opponents and seven games played at home, but the progress that this group has shown on both sides of the football has been undeniable. After averaging 30.0 points per game (53rd in FBS) on 408.9 total yards, Houston has upped the ante with 37.3 points (14th in FBS) on 415.2 total yards, with the development of a trio of playmakers key to their evolution. First and foremost, (fourth-year Junior Quarterback) Clayton Tune (68.5%, 3,263 YDS, 8.6 Y/A, 28 TD, 9 INT) has finally made good on the faith that Holgorsen had him. Starting parts of the 2019 and 2020 seasons, Tune made 2021 his and his alone in raising his completion percentage from 59.2% to 68.5%, en route to throwing for a career-high 3,263 yards and twenty-eight touchdowns opposed to nine interceptions. Decision-making was certainly a criticism of the passer over the last two years (19 interceptions), only to put together a better than 3-1 ratio this season. In fact, if not for four interceptions thrown in that aforementioned loss to the Red Raiders, Tune has tossed twenty-six touchdowns in comparison to just five picks over the last twelve games. It’s also helped that a pair of playmakers have emerged to help in the form of (Freshman Tailback) Alton McKaskill (175 CAR, 883 YDS, 5.0 Y/A, 16 TD) and (Sophomore Receiver) Nathaniel Dell (80 REC, 1,179 YDS, 14.7 Y/R, 12 TD). After ranking next-to-last in the AAC in rushing offense a year ago (143.1 Y/G), Houston came into this year with questions in the Backfield, but McKaskill has done a great job in quelling them, leading the team with 883 rushing yards and sixteen touchdowns, with (Texas Tech transfer) Ta’Zhawn Henry (109 CAR, 515 YDS, 4.7 Y/A, 7 TD) adding another 505 yards and seven scores. And then there is Dell, who filled the void left by Marquez Stevenson (NFL Draft) and Keith Corbin (transfer), leading the conference in both receiving yards (1,179) and receiving touchdowns (12). At a slight 5′-10″, 155 lbs. Dell really came on late in the campaign, reeling in forty-one receptions for 669 yards and eight scores over the last six games of the schedule, including nine catches for 152 yards and a touchdown in that 35-20 loss to the Bearcats. Speaking of that affair, the Cougars put up quite a fight with Cincy in that December 4th meeting, trailing 14-13 at intermission following an explosive first quarter that featured three touchdowns, twenty-four points, and 316 total yards. A Houston field goal in a much quieter second period would cut the deficit to one at halftime, though the third quarter would be OWNED by Cincinnati running off twenty-one unanswered points to swing momentum firmly into their corner. The point where that momentum shifted was on a potential fourth down stop where (Junior Cornerback) Marcus Jones (47 TKL, 1 TFL, 5 INT, 13 PD) was flagged for controversial pass interference, immediately leading to an 8-yard touchdown toss from (Cincinnati Quarterback) Desmond Ridder. Tune would then be intercepted on the first play of the ensuing possession, with his counterpart throwing another touchdown to stretch the lead to 28-14 in a matter of minutes. Compounding matters, the Bearcats would tear off a 42-yard touchdown run to end a shocking run of twenty-one points in eight minutes, leaving Houston stunned and unable to strike back. Indeed, it was a disappointing performance for a defense that had shown a good deal of growth throughout the campaign, going from relinquishing an average of 32.0 points per game (80th in FBS) on 398.5 total yards in 2020 to just 21.0 points (25th in FBS) on 298.8 yards, but were chewed up to the tune of 400 yards, including 210 on the ground. Though they failed to get their hands on the football in that particular matchup, takeaways have been a HUGE part of their success this season, with twenty-two through the first twelve games, including two or more in half of those contests. The aforementioned Jones has been their biggest contributor in this regard, sharing the FBS lead with five interceptions along with thirteen passes defended, not to mention proving to be a force in the return game with a combined forty-one kick and punt returns for 884 and four touchdowns. Today’s postseason appearance marks their second straight bowl under Holgorsen and their fifteenth in the last nineteen years, though they’ll be looking to snap a four-game losing streak in bowls, with their last victory being in the 2015 Peach Bowl when Tom Herman was in charge. Holgorsen in 2-6 all-time in bowls, with 28-14 loss to Hawai’i in last year’s New Mexico Bowl serving as his latest offering.
Meanwhile, as their opponent today can attest, transition can be a long and arduous process, and Auburn (6-6, 3-5 in SEC) is indeed finding that out as they conclude their first season under (Head Coach) Bryan Harsin. After losing four or more games in each of the last three seasons, the school initiated the single largest buyout in the history of the sport, spending a whopping $21.5 million dollars to part ways with Gus Malzahn, who arrived to much fanfare and took the Tigers to a National Championship Game in 2013. However, as much of an innovator as he was, Malzahn’s tactics started to become stale while his recruiting efforts in the always competitive Southeast Conference began to fall behind that of Alabama, LSU, Georgia, and Florida. And as is so often the case in sports, the school opted to go in a completely different direction for his successor, hiring Harsin after seven successful seasons at Boise State. Needless to say, transitioning from the MWC to the SEC is MAJOR leap, with that transition nearly as massive as going from the likes of Malzahn to Harsin, who couldn’t be more diametrically opposed as coaches. His predecessor was all about speed, up-tempo, and running predominantly outside-zone, while Harsin is all about pounding the football between the tackles and being blue-collar. Simply put, this was arguably the biggest culture change in college football in 2021. If his time at Boise State taught us anything about this guy, it’s that he’s an absolute grinder, and his detail-oriented approach was always going to create a steep learning curve for the Tigers, which is precisely what has happened in his first year on the job. With the bulk of his personnel on the offensive side of the football ill-suited for his tactics, Harsin’s attack was very much a work in progress this year, averaging just 29.6 points per game (58th in FBS) on 405.6 total yards, including 241.2 yards through the air and another 164.4 yards on the ground, netting 5.9 yards per play. After earning SEC Freshman of the Year honors a year ago, (Sophomore Tailback) Tank Bigsby (207 CAR, 1,003 YDS, 4.8 Y/A, 10 TD) raised his play with 1,003 yards and ten touchdowns, proving to be a natural fit for Harsin’s system with his bruising style. However, he’ll need to continue his growth for apart from rushing for 343 yards through the first three games, he only surpassed 100 yards twice the rest of the way and has been held below seventy yards thrice during his team’s current four-game losing streak. With that said, the biggest question mark will be at Quarterback after (Junior) Bo Nix (61.0%, 2,294 YDS, 7.1 Y/A, 11 TD, 3 INT) announced his transfer earlier this week, ending his uneven tenure with the school. Malzahn’s inability to develop the former five-star prospect was just one reason for his ousting, and after twelve games it’s become clear that Harsin and his coaching staff have been unable to get much out of him either; Nix completed 61.0% of his attempts for an average of 229.4 yards on 7.1 yards per attempt with eleven touchdowns in comparison to just three interceptions, while rushing for another 158 yards and four scores. You can tell that Harsin was unhappy with his development, as (Offensive Coordinator) Mike Bobo was relieved of his duties after just one year on the job. Unfortunately, it appears that Nix was set up to fail from the start, particularly when you consider that he lost his top three receiving targets from 2020 in the form of Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz, and Eli Stove. No Tiger had more than forty receptions this season, with (Sophomore) Kobe Hudson (40 REC, 523 YDS, 13.1 Y/R, 3 TD) leading the team with forty catches for 523 yards and three scores. So, with Nix out of the picture the starting job for today’s contest will likely be (Sophomore Quarterback) T.J. Finley (56.0%, 600 YDS, 6.6 Y/A, 5 TD, 1 INT), an LSU transfer who saw action in eight games this year, completing 56.0% of his passes for 600 yards, five touchdowns and an interception. Standing a towering 6′-7″ and 246 lbs. Finley experienced the majority of hi action over the last two games of the schedule, losses at South Carolina and in the Iron Bowl against bitter rival, Alabama. In many respects, he handled himself well against the reigning National Champions, completing 17-of-26 passes for 137 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in the 24-22 epic. The youngster did his best with an overly conservative game plan, pushing the Crimson Tide to four overtimes before finally succumbing to defeat. Look for Harsin to dive into the Transfer Portal once more in the coming months, but for all intents and purposes Finley should have the advantage for QB1 heading into Spring. And speaking of the Spring, that is where Harsin is going to really make his bones. Can a guy from Boise recruit against the titans of the SEC? That is the question that is on everyone’s minds, and a win this afternoon would likely go a long way towards providing an answer to that quandary. Auburn has had just four losing seasons since Pat Dye left the program back in 1992, and while they appear to be a long way towards getting back to challenging within an expanding SEC that is primed to add the likes of both Oklahoma and Texas in the coming years, they still possess the history, resources, and facilities to build a winner. They’ve done it under multiple coaches over the years, and they can do it again with Bryan Harsin. However, it’s going to take a considerable amount of work and likely a good deal of time, though that last commodity is often hard to come by. Today’s bowl marks the ninth consecutive postseason appearance for the Tigers, and forty-fifth in school history (24-19-2), though they’ve managed to win just two of their last eight. Harsin 4-2 in bowls at Boise State, and today’s matchup with Houston will be the first between the schools since 1973, with Auburn owning a 5-1 record.