Why Memphis Should Be Favored Over Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl
A bowl game typically serves one of two purposes for a motivated participant: an exclamation point on a great year or a separation point from a disappointing regular season.
The Birmingham Bowl between Auburn and Memphis will play both roles this Wednesday.
Perhaps no team this side of Columbus, Ohio, came into the season with more buzz than Auburn. Despite finishing 2014 a modest 8-5, Gus Malzahn’s squad won over the summer hype machine, and were ultimately voted as the favorite to win the conference by SEC media.
Unfortunately, Auburn’s pinnacle came in Week 1 with a defeat of Louisville. By Week 2 Auburn needed a late score to get by FCS foe Jacksonville State (a 40-point underdog), and then, the Tigers lost 6 of 7 conference games against eventual bowl teams. As an indicator of the consistent overestimation of Auburn this season, War Eagle went just 3-9 against the Vegas spread -- the worst ATS record of any bowl team -- and underperformed the line by an average of more than five points per game.
The net result for the underachieving Tigers is that Malzahn appears to be squarely on the hot seat. He needs to turn the page quickly on 2015.
“I think the honeymoon of that national championship game season has worn off,” Fox Sports’ Stewart Mandel said on his December 22 podcast. “They had a disastrous season. They finished 7th [in the SEC West]. That place has no patience, so if he goes 6-6 next year, he’s probably gone.”
Memphis, meanwhile, stormed into the national College Football Playoff conversation with an October 17 drubbing of Ole Miss. After starting 8-0, Memphis dropped three consecutive conference games in November. But a second win over an SEC opponent would be the proverbial icing for an emerging program, even without departed coach Justin Fuente.
So, if there is a line in this year’s bowl season that screams “SEC bias!” it is this one. Despite their divergent paths to Birmingham, Auburn is a three-point favorite over Memphis.
The eye test isn’t the only gauge suggesting the wrong team is favored: the advanced metrics make that case as well.
Inside the Numbers
numberFire’s team efficiency ratings, or nERD, give a massive edge to Memphis (14.91, 21st in the nation at 14.91) over Auburn (5.67, 50th). Football Outsiders’ F/+ also rates Memphis ahead of Auburn, 27th to 49th. The disparity is accentuated by a key efficiency metric: Memphis’ offense ranked 11th with 3.07 points per possession, while Auburn’s finished 59th at 2.33.
Memphis has been powered all season by a potent and prolific pass attack. Quarterback Paxton Lynch led numberFire’s ninth best passing offense, and the Tigers threw for at least 275 yards in 10 of 11 contests against FCS opponents. Lynch spread the ball around to a primary trio of receivers: Mose Frazier, Anthony Miller and Phil Mayhue. In all, 12 different Memphis players caught touchdown passes.
The aerial assault may spell trouble for Auburn, which ranked 49th in the nation in passing S&P+ and struggled to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Temple showed that the best way to slow Memphis down was disrupting their pass blocking schemes. But Auburn ranks in the bottom 20 in the nation in adjusted sack rate, standard down sack rate and passing down sack rate.
On the other side of the ball, Auburn’s offense has not demonstrated the consistency needed to take advantage of Memphis’ lackluster defense, ranked 51st by numberFire. Questions at the quarterback position plagued Auburn all season and ultimately contributed to Auburn’s 5.01 yards per play average (98th nationally). The Birmingham Bowl will not bring clarity either -- as of late December, War Eagle still hadn’t settled on a quarterback rotation.
The key for Auburn will be controlling the offensive line and creating holes for bigger running backs, Peyton Barber and Jovon Robinson. Establishing an efficient running game will take some pressure off of either Jeremy Johnson or Sean White -- whoever starts at quarterback -- and allow for a more balanced offensive attack.
Outside the Numbers
There is perhaps no player in the country who could benefit more from a dominant bowl performance than Memphis’ Lynch. Still undeclared for the NFL draft, Lynch came into the season as a relative unknown to the average college observer. But Lynch emerged as an efficiency stud, finishing fifth in the nation is completion percentage (69 percent) and ninth in yards per pass attempt (9.0). He also threw 28 touchdown passes to just 3 total turnovers.
ESPN’s NFL draft guru, Todd McShay, has projected Lynch second overall. “I still have a lot of work to do on him in terms of analyzing his work ethic, leadership skills, mental makeup and durability history -- but Lynch has the physical skills to develop into a good starting NFL QB, “ McShay wrote earlier this month.
Lynch may not face much resistance from an Auburn defense, whose coordinator, Will Muschamp, is gone and whose star player may lack sufficient motivation. Defensive end Carl Lawson is an NFL talent, but he spent much of the year rehabbing a knee injured in 2014. Only time will tell if Lawson will use the Birmingham Bowl as a bullet point on his resumé or hold back in fear of another injury that could depress his draft stock.
What is clear is that Malzahn is using the extra practices and the bowl exhibition to get reps for some of his younger players who will play an increased role next season. "We let those guys play some football. They were very excited," Malzahn said of his backups and scout team players. "It was good for our coaches to see those guys, and really it was good for our coaches to spend some quality time with those guys."
The talent edge, even with youngsters pervading the lineup, favors Auburn at every position except quarterback. But pure talent is where any Auburn advantage stops and starts. All other signs point to Memphis being the right side in Birmingham, especially if Auburn cannot slow down Lynch.