The 2021 TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl will feature the Houston Cougars of the American Athletic Conference and the Auburn Tigers of the Southeastern Conference. Both of these programs are coming off losses, but Auburn is trying to not end the season on a five-game losing streak. For both teams, it will be their second appearance in the Birmingham Bowl. Auburn defeated Memphis 31-10 in 2015, and Houston fell to Vanderbilt 41-24 in 2014. A first for this year’s edition is the venue. From 2006-2020 the bowl was held at the legendary Legion Field, but this season it will be contested at the brand-new Protective Stadium. The game will be played on December 28th at 11 a.m. Central Time at the home stadium of the UAB Blazers.
2021 TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl Preview
It really was a tale of two seasons for the Auburn Tigers. Under new head coach Bryan Harsin, the Tigers got off to a 6-2 start, and there was talk of Harsin being SEC coach of the year. Then the final four games unraveled all of that. Auburn dropped the final games to Texas A&M, Mississippi State, South Carolina, and Alabama. The last three the Tigers had early leads that they eventually could not hold. Those struggles resulted in the firing of offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, and the hiring of Seattle Seahawks quarterbacks coach Austin Davis.
For the offense in this game, it will need to begin and end with running back Tank Bigsby. The sophomore ran for 1,003 yards on the season and ten touchdowns. Those are good numbers considering the inconsistent nature of the offense this season. The run game might be tough though with offensive linemen Brodarious Hamm (opt-out), Tashawn Manning (transfer), and Nick Brahms (knee injury) not playing in the game. It will be key to also get quarterback T.J. Finley some confidence early. Finley had some struggles in the final two games after stepping in for former Tiger Bo Nix.
On the defensive side, Auburn will be without some key contributors from this season. This is a unit that outside the Mississippi State collapse has been solid all season. They finished fifth in the SEC by allowing 22.2 points per game. Cornerback Rogers McCreary and linebacker Zakoby McClain will not play due to opting out to prepare for the NFL draft. They will have defensive end Derick Hall and linebacker Chandler Wooten to lean on in their front seven. Hill is third in the SEC with 9.5 sacks on the season. In the secondary, they will have Jaylin Simpson and Nehemiah Pritchett with McCreary sitting out. They will also be without Ladarius Tennison due to his decision to transfer to Ole Miss.
The 21st ranked Houston Cougars are looking to bounce back after a disappointing 20-35 loss in the AAC Championship Game against Cincinnati. Houston comes in winning 11 games with two losses bookending the season. In the opener, they squandered a 21-7 halftime lead against Texas Tech to lose 38-21, and of course the loss to the Bearcats. This was the third season under Dana Holgorsen as head coach, and it was a big turnaround compared to the last two seasons. The 11 wins are four more than those seasons combined going 7-13 in 2019 and 2020.
The Cougar offense is led by quarterback Clayton Tune and wide receiver Nathaniel Dell. This duo should look to exploit a depleted Auburn secondary with McCreary, not in the lineup. Tune comes in ranked third in the AAC with 3,263 yards and 28 touchdown passes. He led the conference with a completion percentage of 68.5%. For Dell, he was tops in the AAC with 1,179 yards and twelve touchdowns. While the passing game ranks fourth in conference the rushing attack is where it drops off. The Cougars ranked ninth on the ground ahead of just Memphis and Temple.
The defense was one of the best in the AAC if not the best. The unit is first in total yards allowed (298 per game) and rushing defense (106.5 per game). If the Cougars play to that level in Birmingham, it might be hard for Auburn to get Bigsby going. The secondary will be without superstar corner Marcus Jones who tied for the conference lead with five interceptions on the season. Jones has decided to opt-out of the game to prepare for the NFL Draft. Defensive lineman D’Anthony Jones might cause the Auburn offensive line issues. Jones is second in the AAC with seven sacks on the season.
Who Wins the 2021 TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl?
When it comes to talent comparison Auburn looks like the better team on paper. That is not a slight to Houston but that is just the case when comparing a top SEC program versus any AAC team. With that said, the Tigers come into this game depleted and showed no signs of consistent offensive production late in the season. The Cougars have a stellar offense and solid defense that should lead to victory. Houston wins 28-17.