How much does the Music City Bowl matter to Auburn football?
In an era where the value of bowl games is diminishing, the Tigers have a real opportunity in Nashville to help "flip the script."
(Austin Perryman/Auburn Tigers)
“How much does a bowl game really matter now?”
It seems like every year in college football, that question gets revisited. The College Football Playoff is often blamed for diminishing the value of bowl games, even the major ones. Players are deciding to not play in these games in order to avoid injury ahead of the NFL Draft at growing rates. The timing of the transfer portal window has thinned out rosters even more.
With the CFP expanding from four to 12 teams in 2024, those issues will likely only grow for bowl games. What was considered a prestigious honor for the majority of college football’s history as a sport has become an afterthought for some. It’s a made-for-TV machine, with the networks themselves owning a large chunk of bowl games for the holiday season viewing inventory.
And the games themselves get further detached from the season they are supposed to represent every year. Teams play in bowls after the coaching carousel has spun and roster upheaval has gotten into full swing. They often come weeks after the last regular season games have been played, putting it into this weird space between the current year and the next one.
That brings us to Auburn’s matchup against Maryland in the Music City Bowl on Saturday. Auburn arrived in Nashville on Tuesday and will start practicing Wednesday afternoon at Vanderbilt, where it picked up an SEC victory back in November.
Maryland head coach Mike Locksley put words to the strange nature of modern bowls when he said this would be “almost like a preseason game.” The Terrapins are getting a head start on life without Taulia Tagovailoa — the Big Ten’s all-time leading passer, who opted out of the bowl after four seasons as their starting quarterback.
Tagovailoa’s opt-out shifted the spread for the game from a field goal in Auburn’s favor to a touchdown. His backups combined for 13 pass attempts this season. Maryland is also dealing with the significant departures of cornerback Tarheeb Still, linebacker Jaishawn Barham and tight end Corey Dyches for this game.
Auburn, meanwhile, looks like it will enter 2024 the same way it ends 2023, with Payton Thorne as its starting quarterback. The bigger transitions for the Tigers, though, are at a wide receiver crew that will get a major infusion of new talent after the bowl game, a defensive front that was already thin for much of the season and a secondary that will lose several experienced standouts.
“It's going to be a great challenge,” Auburn head coach Hugh Freeze said recently. “I know Coach Locksley fairly well. In the two years I took off, I spent some time there with him when he was up the road at Alabama. Very, very, very good football coach, and it will be a great challenge for us in the Music City Bowl.”
One could look at this game and the makeshift rosters for both Auburn and Maryland — two teams that finished under .500 in their respective conferences this season — and give it all a shrug.
Is this year’s Music City Bowl going to matter much in the long run?
Maybe not. But there’s still some value. Just ask the players themselves.