Memphis is in a transition phase after losing the coach that rebuilt the program, though it remains in good hands as long as Paxton Lynch is under center.
Auburn's fill-in defensive coordinator has the unenviable task of trying to contain one of the nation's top passers after Will Muschamp's departure.
In what could be his final college game, Lynch will try to help Memphis cap the best two-year span in its history by dealing Auburn a third consecutive postseason defeat Dec. 30 in the Birmingham Bowl at historic Legion Field.
It's been a long road back to the postseason for Memphis, which went 12-48 from 2009-13. Justin Fuente guided the team to 4-8 and 3-9 seasons before it went 10-3 in 2014 and 9-3 in 2015 for the best two-year run in school history.
Fuente, however, left to take over for Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech last month. Six days later, Memphis tabbed Arizona State deputy head coach and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell with the task of taking the program to another level.
Norvell has already announced that he'll keep assistant head coach and co-offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey on next year's staff. Dickey will first try to help Memphis win bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time following a 55-48 double-overtime victory over BYU in the inaugural Miami Beach Bowl on Dec. 22, 2014.
Memphis won its first eight games and was No. 13 in the first College Football Playoff rankings Nov. 3, the highest of any non-Power Five team in the poll's history.
“Four years ago, talking about us in the postseason, you would have got laughed out of town,” Dickey said. “We've made a lot of progress and we are thrilled to be here.”
Lynch, of course, had plenty to do with Memphis' rise. The NFL prospect set school records for passing yards (3,670) and touchdowns (28) in his junior year and is on pace to break the single-season mark with a 69.0 completion percentage.
Lynch, who became the first Memphis player to throw for 3,000 yards in consecutive seasons, had an NCAA record-tying seven first-half scores in a 63-0 home win over SMU on Nov. 28.
Memphis ranked 13th nationally in total offense (510.4 yards per game) and seventh in scoring (42.7 points per game). Mose Frazier, Anthony Miller and Phil Mayhue each have more than 40 catches, 600 receiving yards and have combined for 10 touchdowns.
“When you look at these guys offensively, they're one of the best in the entire country,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “Really what stands out to me is (Lynch), a big athletic guy with 28 touchdowns and three interceptions – that's phenomenal.”
Lance Thompson, who served as linebackers coach this season, faces the daunting challenge of trying to contain Memphis' prolific offense after Muschamp left after one season as defensive coordinator to become South Carolina's coach.
Even with Muschamp, Auburn ranked 90th nationally while giving up an average of 421.8 total yards. It was 12th in the SEC against the pass, allowing 232.2 yards per game.
Auburn (6-6) dropped four of its last six games, including 29-13 at home to rival Alabama on Nov. 28. It played the Crimson Tide in its last game at Legion Field in 1998.
Auburn had gone 8-1 in the postseason from 2003-11, including a 22-19 win over Oregon in the national championship game in January 2011. But it lost to Florida State 34-31 in the title game after the 2013 season and fell by the same score in overtime to Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl last season.
Now Auburn looks to avoid losing three straight postseason games for the first time since falling in the Gator Bowl in 1955, the Orange Bowl in 1964 and the Liberty Bowl in 1965.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Sean White hopes to be ready despite dealing with a knee injury since the fourth quarter of a quadruple-overtime loss to Arkansas on Oct. 24. White has thrown for 1,064 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions in six games.
If he can't play, junior Jeremy Johnson will likely get the nod after throwing for 1,043 yards with nine scores and seven picks in nine games.
Auburn, though, figures to rely heavily on Peyton Barber and Jovon Robinson. Barber has rushed for 976 yards and 13 touchdowns, while Robinson has 513 yards and two scores.
“They kill you with their between-the-tackle running game,” Dickey said, “and if you over commit to that, they're going to take the ball to the perimeter or throw it.”
Lineman Ricky Hunter, an Auburn, Alabama native, and linebacker Leonard Pegues lead a Memphis defense that ranked third in the American Athletic Conference with 137.8 rushing yards allowed per game, but 11th in the 12-team league against the pass (269.3).
Auburn's Daniel Carlson and Memphis' Jake Elliot were finalists for the Lou Groza Award as two of the nation's top kickers. Both have made 22 of 26 field-goal attempts.
Memphis took the previous two meetings, winning at Auburn in 1975 and at home in '76.
- Anthony Miller
- Auburn Tigers
- Daniel Carlson
- Jeremy Johnson
- Jovon Robinson
- Leonard Pegues
- Memphis Tigers
- Mose Frazier
- Paxton Lynch
- Peyton Barber
- Phil Mayhue
- Ricky Hunter