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Will Gus Malzahn's Auburn finish 2016 with a losing record?

If both teams -- one coming off of a disappointing season, the other preparing for life with a new coach -- are engaged, this could be a really fun game. Dec. 30, noon ET, ESPN.

Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

SB Nation 2015 Bowl Calendar

Between 1902 and 1998, Auburn played in Birmingham 136 times. Like Birmigham's Legion Field itself, this notion is now a relic. But the Tigers return on Wednesday and battle another local Tigers squad.

1. Redemption vs. formality for Auburn

The pollsters didn't wait for Auburn to lose to decide the Tigers weren't what they were supposed to be. Gus Malzahn's team started sixth in the preseason polls but fell to 18th after needing overtime to get past FCS' No. 1 team, Jacksonville State. A week later, the Tigers were blown out by LSU, and they wouldn't sniff the polls the rest of the year.

Auburn flirted with higher quality, losing tight games to Arkansas and Memphis victim Ole Miss and beating Texas A&M by 16 points in College Station. But they finished 6-6, about four wins shy of what was expected. While they were competitive in losses to chief rivals Alabama and Georgia, they still lost to both.

Malzahn's Auburn tenure began with 19 wins in 22 games. The Tigers are since 7-10. They reached a bowl by the skin of their teeth, but no matter what happens in Birmingham, Malzahn will begin 2016 on one of the hotter seats. That might have been unfathomable two years ago, as AU was preparing for the BCS Championship, but here we are.

An engaged Auburn could find itself involved in a fun battle with Memphis, as both teams have distinct advantages. Auburn's offense ranks 42nd in Off. S&P+ and wasn't nearly as impressive as it was supposed to be, but War Eagle is still efficient on the ground (with almost no big-play potential) and explosive through the air. Leading receiver Ricardo Louis averages 15.5 yards per catch, and considering Memphis' penchant for allowing big receptions (they have allowed 25 passes of 30-plus yards, 112th in FBS), his final game in an Auburn uniform could be a productive one.

Auburn's offensive efficiency, combined with its ability to render any opposing offense efficient (success rate allowed: 46 percent, 111th in FBS), could lead to Legion Field's scoreboard lighting up, and not because of faulty wiring.

On the heels of a disappointing campaign, some teams end up taking a "let's get this over with" approach to bowls. There's nothing that can erase the bitter taste of underachieving, and nothing will get fixed until the slate is officially wiped clean in the new year.

Other teams end up pulling an approximation of what Boise State did to Northern Illinois: taking out a year's worth of frustration. Which is it going to be for Malzahn's squad?

2. Paxton's last statement

Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch is a projected top-10 pick, and with his head coach already leaving town (Justin Fuente took the Virginia Tech job), one has to assume the Birmingham Bowl will be Lynch's last in a Memphis uniform.

Lynch's name will be as closely tied to Memphis' football renaissance as Fuente's. He threw for 2,056 yards and nine scores as a freshman starter on a 3-9 team, then raised his game to 3,031 yards and 22 scores for Memphis' breakthrough 2014 squad. With one game remaining, he's 330 yards from 4,000 in 2015; the Tigers got as high as 15th in AP poll this year before three straight losses to good teams in November. A win over Auburn would give them back-to-back 10-win seasons, the first in school history.

Lynch's final regular season game was one of the more incredible you'll see. In a 63-0 win over SMU, he completed nine passes ... seven for touchdowns. He won't replicate that against Auburn, but with Auburn's shaky pass rush, he should have time to find receivers.

This is a changing-of-the-guard game. UM replaced Fuente with former Arizona State offensive coordinator Mike Norvell. He inherits a program infinitely healthier than the one Fuente inherited. Still, likely Lynch and eight seniors (including leading receiver Mose Frazier and three of four leading tacklers) will be starting their final games. You never know about bowl motivation, but there's enough finality here to assume that the Tigers will be ready to deliver a solid performance.

3. Key Stat: Success rate

Check out the monstrous stat preview here.

Spread: Auburn -2.5
S&P+ Projection: Memphis 32.7, Auburn 29.2
Team Sites: College And Magnolia, Underdog Dynasty (Memphis)
Category Auburn offense Memphis defense Memphis offense Auburn defense
EXPLOSIVENESS 1.11 (122) 1.31 (92) 1.30 (43) 1.10 (8)
EFFICIENCY 44.0% (39) 42.4% (75) 46.2% (20) 46.4% (111)

Matchups suggest this game could finish with quite a few points.

Auburn's offense was efficient -- the problem came from the lack of big-play run threats -- and Memphis generally allowed offenses to stay on schedule.

It's the same on the other end. Memphis had a top-20 success rate (unadjusted for opponent), and Auburn was in the bottom 20.

Auburn neither allowed nor produced too many big plays outside of bombs to Louis, so efficiency could be the key. If Peyton Barber and Jovon Robinson are allowed to carve out chunks of six to eight yards at a time, and if Lynch is given time to throw, both teams could approach 50 percent in the success rate department. That could create a "first team to 40 wins" scenario, which ... well ... there are worse things for bowls, right?