Auburn football QB TJ Finley will play in Birmingham Bowl. Pieces around him remain unclear

Bennett Durando
Montgomery Advertiser

AUBURN — The next three weeks will give clarity regarding which Auburn football players plan to play in the team's bowl game, but the Tigers will have at least one critical player available.

After spraining his ankle in Auburn's final regular-season game, quarterback T.J. Finley has recovered and will play in the Birmingham Bowl, his family told the Montgomery Advertiser.

Finley was dragged down for a sack in the third quarter of the Iron Bowl vs. Alabama on Nov. 27, injuring his ankle. He was making his third Auburn start after Bo Nix's own season-ending ankle injury. Finley was the backup for most of the year, and he played through the injury against Alabama, often limping between plays but finishing the game 6-for-8 with one touchdown and one interception.

Auburn (6-6) ends its season against No. 21 Houston (11-2) in the Birmingham Bowl on Dec. 28 (tt a.m. CT, ESPN) at Protective Stadium. 

Finley's regular season was highlighted by his surprise entrance into Auburn's 34-24 win over Georgia State in September. With Nix having a rough day and Auburn trailing 24-12, first-year coach Bryan Harsin switched quarterbacks to "try to create some type of momentum." Finley rallied the Tigers for a 98-yard, game-winning drive. He threw a fourth-and-goal 9-yard touchdown pass to senior Shedrick Jackson, giving Auburn a 25-24 lead with 45 seconds left and saving Harsin from a home upset.

Finley's season totals were 600 yards, five touchdowns and one interception on 56% passing. The LSU transfer would likely become Auburn's regular starter next season if Nix elects not to return. Auburn is still awaiting a decision from Nix, a three-year starter.

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Finley's available receivers and offensive linemen in the bowl game remain unclear. Graduate transfer Demetris Robertson used his final year of eligibility, so if he doesn't play in Birmingham, his college career will have ended. Jackson, another senior and starter, has an extra year of NCAA eligibility available if he wants it. Reserve Caylin Newton is the same. The rest of the position group is made up of non-seniors, including leading receiver Kobe Hudson.

Tight end John Samuel Shenker is another senior whose college career could end now, continue through the bowl game or continue through another full season. Eligibility will be more muddled than usual in the coming seasons because of the optional extra year granted to every athlete as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the offensive line, Brodarious Hamm, Nick Brahms, Brandon Council, Austin Troxell and Alec Jackson are all key seniors whose decisions will affect how Harsin recruits and approaches his personnel next season. 

"I’ve talked to the coaches a little bit about (whether to return or leave)," Brahms said Nov. 17.

The Tigers' center recently had surgery to repair an injured knee, so he won't play in Birmingham. "I do have that extra year. So a lot of guys are still debating on whether they come back or not, and so that’s just going to be a thing that I have to talk to, at the end of the year, with my coaches, my family, stuff like that. But I definitely have that opportunity, so I haven’t ruled it out. I made that clear to the coaches and stuff. So we’ll see where that goes at the end of the season."