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Music City Bowl preview: Maryland football vs. Auburn

The Terps look for their third consecutive bowl game win.

Maryland v Rutgers Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Maryland football will close out its 2023 campaign Saturday in the Music City Bowl against Auburn.

The game, which will air on ABC, is set to begin at 2 p.m. ET and will be played at Nissan Stadium — home of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans — in Nashville, Tennessee, providing Auburn with a slight geographical advantage.

The Terps finished the regular season with a 7-5 record and have a chance to secure their second consecutive eight-win season for the first time since 2002-03.

Auburn and Maryland are relatively unfamiliar with each other. The Terps hold a 1-2 all-time record against the Tigers, with Auburn taking the most recent matchup in 1983.

According to DraftKings Sportsbook, Auburn is a 6.5-point favorite. The over/under is 47 total points.

Auburn Tigers (6-6, 3-5 SEC)

Head coach Hugh Freeze is nearing the end of his first season with Auburn. Freeze spent the last 12 years as the head coach of four different programs, amassing a 103-47 record. Most recently, he built Liberty into a perennial bowl participant in just four seasons, as the Flames were one of five FBS teams (Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana and Georgia) to win a bowl game in each of the last three seasons.

Despite a prestigious history, Auburn has hovered around six wins the past few seasons. The Tigers started the year 6-4 but dropped their last two games, including a heart-breaking loss to rival Alabama. With a win on Saturday, Auburn would cement their highest single-season win total since 2019.

Players to watch

Payton Thorne, junior quarterback, No. 1 — Thorne transferred from Michigan State, where he started every game over his two years in East Lansing. As a Spartan, he helped lead the team to an 11-2 record in 2021, recording 27 passing touchdowns, a single-season program record, and four rushing touchdowns. Last season, he threw for 2,679 yards, 19 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

This year, Thorne has been under center for all 12 games, tallying 18 total touchdowns and nine interceptions.

Jarquez Hunter, junior running back, No. 27 — Hunter was named to the All-SEC second team following a career year. In 11 games, he posted 865 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns on 5.9 yards per carry. He’s also been a threat in the receiving game, hauling in 16 passes for 111 yards.

Jaylin Simpson, senior safety, No. 36 — Like Hunter, Simpson was one of three Tigers to be selected to an all-conference team this year. After playing the last three seasons as a rotational cornerback, Simpson broke out as a safety, tallying 36 total tackles, three pass breakups and four interceptions, which ranks third in the SEC.

Rivaldo Fairweather, junior tight end, No. 13 — Auburn has a fairly well-balanced passing attack, but Fairweather leads the bunch. In his first year with the Tigers after transferring from Florida International, Fairweather leads the team with 33 receptions for 349 yards and six touchdowns, which earned him a spot on the All-SEC second team.

Strength

Running the ball. Led by Hunter, Auburn’s running game has been productive and consistent throughout the season. The Tigers rank third in the SEC with 198.4 rushing yards per game and fourth with 5.0 yards per attempt. Thorne is the team’s second-leading rusher with 520 yards.

Weakness

Passing attack. Despite Thorne’s experience, Auburn has one of the worst passing attacks in the SEC. The Tigers rank last in the conference with 157.1 passing yards per game and second-to-last with 17 passing touchdowns, also throwing the second-most interceptions (11).

Three things to watch

1. A new face under center for Maryland. With Taulia Tagovailoa electing not to play Saturday, redshirt sophomore Billy Edwards Jr. is slated to make his first start of the season. Edwards played well in the only start of his career last year against Northwestern, throwing for 166 yards and a touchdown, while rushing for 66 yards.

Redshirt freshman Cam Edge is expected to play as well.

2. Both sides are missing key contributors. As is common in college football nowadays, both teams will be without a plethora of starters, whether that be a result of the transfer portal or opting out. For Maryland, Tagovailoa, tight end Corey Dyches, linebacker Jaishawn Barham and cornerback Tarheeb Still are the most notable non-participants. Meanwhile, Auburn will miss wide receiver Ja’Varrius Johnson and cornerbacks D.J. James and Nehemiah Pritchett. With both sides missing key pieces, depth and preparation will be emphasized.

3. A third straight bowl win? Saturday presents Maryland with the opportunity to secure its third bowl game victory in as many years, which would be a program first.