One of the hardest things to do as someone who writes about football is predict what will happen in a lower-tier bowl game. In the big-money games, particularly those that can lead to a national championship, both teams often come in motivated and play their best game. (This offer does not apply to football programs hailing from Tuscaloosa and playing in New Orleans.) Even in some of the mid-tier match-ups, the opponents are looking to cap off surprisingly good seasons or prove that a rebuilding project is moving along nicely.
But when you get down to games like the Birmingham Bowl, the motivation levels can vary wildly among teams. The unpredictability that comes with any game in which the teams have had three of four weeks off is ratcheted up a notch by the possible impact of emotions, distractions and the dreaded intangibles. Even in the most normal of circumstances, picking a game like that with any degree of confidence is difficult. And this year's Birmingham Bowl is not exactly being played under the most normal of circumstances.
1We end up here? At some point in 2015, both of these teams had reason to believe that their postseason destinations would be a little bit more glamorous than Birmingham. Auburn was one of the preseason favorites in the SEC West, and even after the narrow escapes against Louisville and Jacksonville State there was a chance the Tigers could string together a good season. But Auburn would win just two SEC games to limp into a bowl. Memphis, meanwhile, looked like the front-runner for a the Group of 5 position in the New Year's Six bowls after walloping Ole Miss en route to an 8-0 start. But the Tigers (Memphis edition) got crushed by Navy, lost narrowly at Houston and then lost to Temple by 19 before waxing SMU to finish the year. It should surprise no one if both of these teams come out flat for a noon kickoff on Dec. 30.
Shanna Lockwood -- USA Today Sports
2Sideline vacancies. Auburn is still looking for a defensive coordinator after Will Muschamp left the team for the head coaching position at South Carolina. Memphis, meanwhile, lost its head coach when Justin Fuente accepted the Virginia Tech job. The Tigers (Memphis edition) have a new head coach, but he's not going to be running things on Saturday. Darrell Dickey is serving as the interim head man. The loss on Auburn's side might not be as bad as it could be; Muschamp was a great defensive mind, but was still struggling to right the ship on the plains. The defense was ranked 50th in S&P+. Fuente, on the other hand, turned a football program that was beyond moribund into a contender in the American Athletic Conference. Whether the team can do as well without him on the sideline is a real concern.
3Conference pride. No one on the Auburn side of the field is going to yell "Remember Ole Miss!" -- at least, I hope not -- but it would hard to miss the fact that the Rebels' defeat against Memphis was a blow to the conference's prestige. It would have been one thing if Memphis had gone on to play in the NY6, but that didn't happen; a 9-3 American Athletic Conference team beat a 9-3 SEC team. The SEC can't really recover that little bit of its reputation if Auburn wins this game, but a loss will likely buoy the spirits of those who want to knock the conference down a peg. Memphis being 2-0 against the SEC will likely be remarked on a bit. On the more meaningful side of things, there should be no conference jingoism going into this one. Memphis showed this year that it can play with a good SEC team. Even sans the head coach that built the program, there's no reason to believe the Tigers (Memphis edition) are about to get rolled.
4On a roll. The SEC has won three straight in this bowl game, not that it's something you really brag about a great deal. The last time the SEC lost was in 2011 (post-2010 season), when a 6-6 Kentucky team lost to a Pitt team that was being coached by a interi-- you know, never mind that part. Here's another interesting tidbit: Three of the last five SEC teams to play in this game went on to contend for the division the following year. South Carolina played in Birmingham after the 2009 regular season; Ole Miss did so following the 2012 regular season; and Florida played in Birmingham last year. That's probably not worth a great deal, but it's something, Auburn fans.
5Gamblers vs. advanced stats. The wisdom of the crowds or the wisdom of the stat-heads? This game is something of a case study, though like all case studies it's only of limited value on its own. Memphis is ranked 27th in F/+, to 49th for Auburn. Memphis' offense is better in S&P+ than Auburn, but its defense is worse. Meanwhile, Auburn is a 3.5-point favorite in most books (a 3-point favorite in others), a little bit up from the opening line. Of course, advanced statistics can't take into account things like motivation and the loss of a head coach. But the betting public can also put too much weight on intangibles.
THREE TO WATCH
Auburn QB Position: This is the 13th game of the season for Auburn. Who will start at quarterback will be a "pre-game" decision. As in, right before the game starts. Therein lies part of the problem for the Tigers (Auburn edition) and one of the reasons that they're in the Birmingham Bowl instead of, say, the Sugar Bowl. The options are Jeremy Johnson (94-of-156, 1,043 yards, nine touchdowns and seven interceptions) and Sean White (75-of-130, 1,064 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.) Whoever starts gets the chance to either be a hero or a goat headed into the offseason.
Paxton Lynch, QB, Memphis: If there's one breakout player on this Memphis team, it's the quarterback. Paxton Lynch finished the regular season 280-of-406 passing for 3,670 yards, 28 touchdowns and just three interceptions. When he struggled were the games in which Memphis tended to struggle. But when he's in command, Lynch is able to move the ball around. Six Memphis players have 20 or more receptions this season. The signal-caller is already getting plenty of NFL buzz as the Draft approaches.
Justin Ford -- USA Today Sports
Cassanova McKinzy, LB, Auburn: In addition to having one of the best names in the SEC, McKinzy is one of the most disruptive players for the Plainsmen. He has five sacks among his 10 tackles for loss. And while what counts as a quarterback hurry can vary from team to team, McKinzy's team-leading 20 are twice as many as the next-best Tiger. The senior is playing in his final game at Auburn.
It would be one thing if this were one of the "normal" bowl games, where motivation isn't a factor and projecting the outcome can be tricky enough. But this game has almost as many subplots as "Heroes: Reborn," and they're just as easy to decipher. Which Memphis team shows up? For that matter, which Auburn team shows up? When there are that many unknowns, my default position is to go back to which team I believe is better. Unfortunately, that's not Auburn. Memphis 28, Auburn 23