Paxton Lynch can lead Memphis to a win over Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl

The Tigers take on the Tigers on December 30th. Steve Palazzolo offers up a preview and prediction.

| 12 months ago
(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Paxton Lynch can lead Memphis to a win over Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl


There’s no deeper division in college football than the SEC West and no better way to earn respect than going head to head with one of the division’s best. Memphis has already proved their worth with a victory over Ole Miss earlier this season, and they have another chance to take the SEC down a peg with Auburn on the horizon.

Matchup preview

Polar opposite seasons collide as Auburn overcame early disappointments to sneak into the bowl picture while Memphis took the nation by storm, including the aforementioned win over Ole Miss, before three late losses knocked them back down a bit. Auburn was viewed by many as one of the top teams in the country during the offseason, as the defense has talent sprinkled throughout and head coach Gus Malzahn’s previous success with a variety of quarterbacks was being counted upon as a stabilizer at a position with question marks. Incumbent quarterback, Jeremy Johnson, failed to live up to the hype early on while Sean White fared slightly better before going down to injury in Week 11. Instability at the position — combined with an underwhelming defense — had Auburn stumbling to a 6-6 regular season record that featured only two wins in the SEC.

As for Memphis, the opposite was true at the quarterback position where Paxton Lynch was one of the nation’s best, even putting himself in the first round mix if he declares for the NFL draft. He carried the pass-heavy offense, though it was the defense’s inconsistency that placed Memphis in a number of shootouts throughout the season. They were torched in coverage far too often, and Memphis’ once-high hopes of shaking up the playoff picture were dashed by a three-game losing streak late in the season. Still, it was an impressive season for upstart Memphis, and Lynch may be ready to make his last mark on the college game before turning pro.

Key players

Defensive line prospects

Auburn looked more like a collection of talent rather than a cohesive defensive unit for much of the season — a rarity given defensive coordinator, Will Muschamp’s, previous success on that side of the ball. Scouts have players to watch on all levels of the Auburn defense, but the two juniors with perhaps the most potential are DT Montravius Adams and DE Carl Lawson. While Lawson battled injuries, Adams led the defensive line in snaps for the second year in a row (717), grading at +9.8 overall. Given his +15.9 grade rushing the passer a year ago, his +0.7 mark this season is a bit of a disappointment (two sacks, two hits, 10 hurries on 372 rushes). He’ll need to get back to his 2014 levels and beyond to re-live that potential.

Lawson missed all of 2014 before being limited to only 345 snaps in six games this season. He has top-round potential given his athleticism and the production is not far behind as he graded at +6.8 as a pass rusher (two sacks, two hits, 15 hurries on 162 rushes). Like Adams, there is still more to prove and given Muschamp’s penchant for moving both players around the defense to find favorable matchups, the opportunities will be there against Memphis’ pass-heavy attack.

Auburn’s Jovon Robinson, RB

After injuries held Robinson to only four carries over the first eight weeks, Robinson became Auburn’s top option out of the backfield down the stretch and it reflected in his +7.8 run grade. He led Auburn backs with a 46.5 elusive rating as he forced 13 missed tackles on 90 rushes while averaging 3.26 yards after contact per rush. While RB Peyton Barber leads Auburn in yards (976), attempts (226) and touchdowns (13) and he’ll be a part of the game plan, it was Robinson who saw the bulk of the carries the last few weeks of the season, bringing more efficiency to Auburn’s offense.

Memphis’ Paxton Lynch, QB

As mentioned, Lynch’s ascent is one of the top stories of the season in college football. After ranking 21st overall among quarterbacks in 2014, Lynch moved up to number nine overall at +34.3 overall this season. As a draft prospect, he’s vaulted from intriguing mid-rounder to potential first rounder, and while that may be a more aggressive move than is warranted, Lynch deserves credit for continued improvement in his third year as starter. He leads the nation with a 70.9 percent accuracy percentage under pressure, posting a +9.0 grade when under duress. He’s handled the blitz well, as his +13.0 grade on only 75 attempts will attest. Only 12.6 percent of Lynch’s passes travel at least 20 yards in the air, but he’s been efficient in his attempts as his accuracy percentage of 54.9 percent ranks 11th in the nation. Lynch graded negatively in only two games all season, both Memphis losses, so as has been the case, the Tigers’ hopes ride on his arm and athleticism in the run game.

Memphis run defense

Memphis is strong in the right area when going up against a Gus Malzahn offense as the no huddle attack is predicated on establishing a power run game. Memphis boasts green grades against the run all over their defense, led by nose tackle Donald Pennington’s +11.1 grade. The linebackers are led by Wynton McManis whose +8.9 grade against the run ranked third among AAC linebackers while Jackson Dillon provided a +6.2 grade on the edge. All told, Memphis has eight players with at least 100 snaps and a positive run grade so they’re primed to match up to Auburn in the trenches.

Prediction

While Memphis’ win over Ole Miss has little bearing on the outcome of this game, it at least gives us a gauge of what they’re capable of as a team. Lynch is more than able to carry the offense, especially against an inconsistent Auburn defense, while Memphis is strong in the right areas on the defensive side to slow Auburn’s fast-paced run attack.

Memphis 31, Auburn 28

| Senior Analyst

Steve is a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has been featured on ESPN Insider, NBC Sports, and 120 Sports.

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