Auburn’s biggest strength vs Houston will be the defensive line


Auburn has its work cut out for themselves in their bowl game against Houston.

The No. 20 Cougars, entering the Birmingham Bowl 11-2 having won their division in the American Athletic Conference, are desperate to prove that they can compete for a full sixty minutes on the same field as an SEC school such as Auburn.

“It means everything,” Houston quarterback Clayton Tune said in a recent interview when asked about the importance of the matchup. “It’s gonna be awesome. It’s an SEC opponent. So we’re really excited.”

It feels like there’s more at stake here for Houston, potentially picking up a win over an SEC team rather than Auburn, who would be earning a win over a top 20 Group of Five opponent. It’s lose-lose for the Tigers. Win, and the storyline is ‘this is what SEC teams should do to the Group of Five.’ Lose, and the narrative goes as follows: ‘The SEC isn’t as good as people think. This was certainly a down year and Auburn’s loss to Houston partially proves it.’ Regardless, this will be a tough test for the Tigers and Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin acknowledges the challenge that the Cougars provide.

“Auburn football has a long history of playing in Birmingham, and now we have a chance to continue that against a nationally ranked Houston team that has won 11 games this year,” Harsin said in a recent statement. “Our mindset is to end the season with a win as we build momentum for 2022, while allowing our guys to enjoy a great bowl experience.”

If Auburn is to stand a legitimate change against Houston, what will be their best weapon of choice? According to Ted Pardee of the Houston radio broadcast, Auburn’s defensive line is the scariest thing that the Tigers possess.

“Auburn’s defense gets after the quarterback,” Pardee said in an interview on the “Locked On Auburn Podcast” with Zac Blackerby. “If you put on the tape, you’ll notice Houston’s offensive line has been some patchwork, even though it’s mostly been the same five guys.”

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Houston’s offensive line has struggled immensely to protect the quarterback this season, giving up 2.85 sacks per contest (113th in Division I), and 7.69 tackles for loss per game (125th nationally). It is certainly a porous unit for the Cougars, but it makes a little more sense when you consider the conference that Houston plays in (AAC), which Pardee says has issues recruiting offensive lineman to block.

“If there’s anything that the American Athletic Conference teams struggle with, it’s recruiting offensive lineman. And if you’ll watch the (American) Conference Championship game, you’ll see how badly Cincinnati was able to get after Houston,” Pardee said.

Houston’s best offensive lineman is Texas A&M transfer Tank Jenkins, who was a four star coming out of high school and is currently a sophomore. Their second best o-lineman is Keenan Murphy, who was the 48th best offensive guard in the 2016 recruiting class (984th best prospect overall).

How does Houston expect to deal with Auburn’s front that is averaging 2.92 sacks per game (28th nationally)? Pardee has an idea.

“(Houston) will use 12-personnel (two tight ends) and they’ll use slide protection to protect Clayton Tune’s backside. However, when you do that, you end up pulling the safeties in,” Pardee said. “So then you’ve only got two receivers that you can throw to when you keep your tight ends in to block.”

Regardless of how Houston attempts to stymie Auburn’s defensive pressure, there is an expectation for the Tigers to be able to get after the quarterback one way or another, as the talent discrepancy between the trenches is large.

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