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Call It The Consolation Bowl: Auburn vs. No. 20 Houston in the Sold-Out Birmingham Bowl

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Welcome to the other side of the college football bowl season.

It’s off Broadway. It’s even off Main Street. The College Football Playoff? You can’t get there from here.

Unranked Auburn (6-6) hosts No. 20 Houston (11-2) on a Tuesday morning in December that is three days past Christmas and three nights from New Year’s Eve.

It’s one of those bowls where they couldn’t even think of a name. So they just named it after the town it’s in.

Yes, Auburn and Houston play in the TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl (noon Eastern, ESPN) at Protective Stadium, a 47,100 seat facility named after an insurance company that opened this year and is located on the campus of Alabama-Birmingham – two hours from Auburn.

Sponsored by a ticket company in a possible conflict of interest situation, the Birmingham Bowl did annouce a sellout on Monday, but that’s their business.

“We’re looking forward to having a packed house because it’s a great bowl game,” Auburn coach Bryan Harsin said. “It’s two good teams. It’s an opportunity for our guys to finish the season, and do it right here in Alabama. So, we’re looking forward to having the fans out there enjoying a great game and having a great atmosphere and making this one of the best bowl games of the year.”

Not bad for a team that lost its last four games, and Harsin was interested in becoming the coach at Oregon, if not Washington before each school made other hires. A Boise, Idaho, native, Harsin had spent most of his career at Boise State before taking the Auburn job a year ago.

In recent weeks, Harsin fired offensive coordinator Mike Bobo and lost starting quarterback Bo Nix, who transferred to Oregon. Harsin plans on calling the plays now.

A host of Auburn players have opted out of the bowl, including All-American cornerback Roger McCreary, starting linebacker Zakoby McCLain and starting right tackle Brodarious Hamm. In addition to Nix, running back Shaun Shivers, wide receiver Elijah Canion and defensive end Caleb Johnson entered the NCAA transfer portal.

“Yeah, we’ll be short,” Harsin said. “We’ve got some guys who aren’t playing. We’ve had some guys who transferred out. We’ll have a few spots where we’re not as deep. That’s just become a part of college football. The way it’s set up now, you can leave (and be eligible to play the next season). You don’t have to be a graduate transfer.”

TJ Finley, who transferred to Auburn from LSU last spring, will start for the Tigers at quarterback, but he has been bothered by an ankle injury suffered in the loss to Alabama.

“He’s much better than he was,” Harsin said. “By the time we play, he’s going to be ready to go.”

Auburn could have finished better and would be at a better bowl. It lost its last two games by a total of six points – 21-17 at South Carolina and 24-22 to Alabama in four overtimes. Auburn led led Alabama 10-3 with less than 30 seconds to play in regulation.

No. 1 Alabama (12-1) plays No. 4 Cincinnati (13-0) in a College Football Playoff semifinal on Friday in Arlington, Texas (2:30 p.m., ESPN). Cincinnati beat Houston 35-20 in the American Athletic Conference championship game.

Houston lost star cornerback Marcus Jones for this bowl to an opt out as he wants to prepare for the NFL Draft.

“The seasons are what the seasons are at this point,” Houston coach Dana Holgorsen said. “This is a reward, but it’s also going to be a huge challenge.”

Written by Glenn Guilbeau

Guilbeau has been on the LSU beat since 1998 with multiple outlets in Louisiana, prior to that he had covered both Auburn and Alabama. He won first place for his game feature on LSU's upset at Florida last season from the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA). He was also named Beat Writer of Year, by Louisiana Sports Writers Association in July; placed in three Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) categories – Beat Writer, Explanatory, Game Coverage – last spring. Guilbeau was also the FWAA first-place winner for columns in 2017 and was also the top overall winner in 2016 FWAA placing first for his game story, second in columns, and receiving honorable mention for features.

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