No. 20 Houston will look to finish its season on a winning note when it plays Auburn on Tuesday afternoon in the Birmingham Bowl.
The Cougars (11-2) dropped their opener, then won 11 games in a row before losing 35-20 against No. 4 Cincinnati in the American Athletic Conference championship game on Dec. 4. Eight of their 11 wins came by double digits.
Houston coach Dana Holgorsen knows that an end-of-season victory would give the Cougars a positive feeling heading into the offseason. It also would show improvement from last season’s disappointing performance in the New Mexico Bowl, where the Cougars lost 28-14 against Hawaii.
During an era in which spread offenses and high-octane passing attacks have become more common, Holgorsen said he still wants Houston’s identity to begin with running the ball and playing sound defense.
Holgorsen is completing his third season in Houston after joining the program from West Virginia, where he coached from 2011-18.
“We run the ball a good bit and control the clock, or a least we try to,” Holgorsen said. “We are a top 10 team in time of possession. There are different things we can do to help the defense. We started noticing that probably the last three years at the previous place I was at when we won 10 games a couple of times and had the first- or second-ranked defense in the country. We took that same model to Houston.
“What we try to do offensively makes it easier to be able to play defense. That’s what championship teams do. I know (coach Bryan Harsin) is doing the same thing at Auburn. If you want to get into that championship conversation, you better play good defense, but your offense is going to have something to do with that.”
Auburn (6-6) is desperate for a win after dropping its final four regular-season games. The Tigers lost by 17 points to then-No. 14 Texas A&M, fell by nine points to Mississippi State, lost by four points to South Carolina and lost by two points in four overtimes to then-No. 3 Alabama.
Harsin is in his first season with Auburn, and a postseason win within the state of Alabama could help him improve buy-in with his current roster as well as boost recruiting efforts.
“We are preparing to represent our school and team well,” Harsin said. “We have a chance for our team to play one last game together, and it’s great to play in our home state. We’re excited to play a game in a new stadium here in Birmingham.”
Auburn will need to be ready for Houston’s offense, led by quarterback Clayton Tune (3,263 passing yards, 28 touchdowns, nine interceptions) and running back Alton McCaskill (883 rushing yards, 16 TDs).
Meanwhile, the Tigers expect to turn to TJ Finley at quarterback after starter Bo Nix announced that he would transfer to Oregon. Finley, who is coming off an ankle injury, completed 51 of 91 passes (56 percent) for 600 yards with five touchdowns and one interception this season.
Auburn will be without three players who will sit out to protect their potential NFL draft status: linebacker Zakoby McClain, cornerback Roger McCreary and offensive lineman Brodarious Hamm.
Houston will be minus a key performer too, as cornerback/wide receiver/kick returner/punt returner Marcus Jones will skip the game. Jones won the Paul Hornung Award this season as the nation’s most versatile player.
Houston is 11-15-1 in bowl games, and it is looking for its first win since claiming the 2015 Peach Bowl.
Auburn is 24-19-2 in bowl games, with its last win coming in the 2018 Music City Bowl.
–Field Level Media