Time and Date: Saturday, October 17 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Location: Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium — Memphis, TN
Spread: UCF (-3)
ESPN FPI: UCF has 71.9% chance to win
All-time series: UCF leads series 13-1 (Knights are 13-0 since 2005)
Last meeting: UCF 56, Memphis 41 — December 1, 2018 (AAC Championship Game)
It’s the matchup that keeps on delivering instant classics.
In the 2017 AAC Championship, Memphis and UCF showcased their high-octane offenses and traded touchdowns in the Bounce House all afternoon. A Tre Neal interception in double overtime sealed a 62-55 win for the Knights, who would go on to complete an undefeated season.
In the 2018 regular season, UCF’s 18-game winning streak was in jeopardy in adverse weather conditions at the Liberty Bowl. Down 13 in the late third quarter, Josh Heupel gambled on 4th and 1 from his own 29, and Taj McGowan ran to the house for 71 yards. UCF stamped its closing remarks on the victory with a McKenzie Milton rushing touchdown and a late defensive stand.
In the 2018 AAC Championship, Doak Walker Award finalist halfback Darrell Henderson led the Memphis offense with 210 rushing yards and four total touchdowns. But a 17-point halftime lead for the Tigers was erased by the heroics of UCF backup quarterback Darriel Mack Jr., who rushed for four touchdowns as the Knights scored 35 of the final 38 points.
The Tigers and Knights didn’t meet in 2019, as Cincinnati represented the AAC East in the conference championship. With no trip to the Bounce House required, Memphis finally claimed the AAC throne for the first time since joining the conference. But even as reigning conference champs, the obstacle the Tigers still haven’t overcome is their budding rival from Orlando. The Knights have claimed 13-straight victories in the series, dating back to 2005. Memphis has come close on countless occasions, but Brady White and Co. will finally try to finish the job at the Liberty Bowl this Saturday.
Both teams will enter Saturday with high emotions, dwelling on a devastating Week 5 loss for two weeks.
A heartbreaking finish in Dallas
After a month off due to COVID-19 related cancelations, Memphis came out rusty against SMU on Oct. 3. The Tigers trailed 24-3, but their offense quickly caught fire to tie the game at 27 apiece. On a potential game-winning drive, quarterback Brady White was sacked and fumbled. The turnover allowed the Mustangs to win on a game-winning field goal, sending Memphis out of the rankings with a 1-1 record and UCF looming on the schedule.
The night the Bounce House streak ended
UCF started its Oct. 3 game in the exact opposite manner. The Knights’ defense was invincible early, forcing three early turnovers and a safety en route to a 23-5 lead. In the pouring rain, UCF couldn’t establish its offense in the second half and allowed Tulsa to end the night on a 29-3 run, marking the Knights’ first home loss since 2016. Just like Memphis, UCF can’t afford another early loss, but one of these teams is bound to face its second defeat of 2020 Saturday afternoon.
When Memphis has the ball
Memphis displayed some of college football’s best offenses during the Mike Norvell era and all the pieces are in place to continue the trend in Ryan Silverfield’s first year. Brady White has been a staple of the Tigers’ offense for three years, and the longtime quarterback is currently pursuing his doctorate while taking snaps on Saturdays. With a limited sample size of two games, White has continued his stellar play from last season. He currently sports a career-high 71% completion rate, but committing turnovers was a problem for the senior last week at SMU. White threw two interceptions and fumbled on the Tigers’ final drive, but the quarterback’s confidence has escalated over the years and he has shown the maturity to rebound from rough performances before.
White’s primary target this season comes from the tight end spot. Sean Dykes, the nephew of former Patriots receiver Hart Lee Dykes, has already registered 16 receptions in two games — the senior’s career-high for a single season. Dykes caught 10 passes for 137 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the opener against Arkansas State. After a month’s rest, he did more of the same to the SMU defense with 85 yards and a touchdown on six receptions. Memphis’ air attack isn’t limited to Dykes. Things get especially dangerous with versatile playmaking threat Damonte Coxie (1,100 yard seasons in 2018 and 2019) and rising star Calvin Austin III lining up at the receiver positions. The loss of the versatile Antonio Gibson is still taking its toll on the Tiger offense, however, and his production on end-arounds and deep catches has been sorely missed.
Another loss Memphis’ offense is facing is the absence of running back Kenneth Gainwell, who opted out of the season within a week of the opener. But Memphis has established somewhat of a Running Back U over the years, succeeding with the likes of Darrell Henderson, Tony Pollard, and Gainwell in the backfield. This year, the backfield duo of Rodrigues Clark and Kylan Watkins has kept the ground attack rolling at its usual level. Both halfbacks are averaging at least five yards per carry this season, and Clark is registering over 100 yards per outing.
The Tigers will be up against a UCF defense that excels as a turnover-producing machine. The Knights haven’t been the best at forcing punts this season, but they’ve forced an FBS-best four turnovers per game. UCF’s defense is trained to go for the rip on every tackle, and that aggressiveness is evident by the eight fumbles the team has recovered this season.
The star of the fearless defense, strong safety Richie Grant, suffered a brutal injury in the fourth quarter against Tulsa and missed the end of the contest. But after two weeks of rest, Grant should be ready to lead the unit on a revenge tour. Another notable disruptor on the Knights is defensive tackle Josh Celiscar. The 6’4”, 230 pound freshman has started his collegiate career on fire with a sack, an interception, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and he’ll be in charge of clogging Memphis’ central running lanes Saturday.
UCF’s defense has allowed plenty of time for opposing quarterbacks this season. The pass rush is in the bottom quartile in terms of recording sacks, and Memphis’ offensive line must win the battle in the trenches as a make-up for allowing White to take three sacks at SMU.
When UCF has the ball
Injuries are the biggest threat to UCF’s offense this season. The team’s best offensive lineman, Parker Boudreaux, has yet to play a game this season. Also, the Knights’ star receiver Tre Nixon has missed the last five halves of UCF football, suffering an apparent collarbone injury on a touchdown reception at Georgia Tech in Week 3. Nixon’s exact status is unknown but Memphis should operate under the assumption he is not playing. The absence of Nixon takes away UCF’s most talented deep threat receiver, and that loss was especially noticeable when the offense couldn’t find a spark in the second half against Tulsa.
Running backs Greg McCrae and Bentavious Thompson, as well as wide receiver Marlon Williams, were also banged up a week ago, but head coach Josh Heupel stated, “I think everybody that was nicked up through the course of play against Tulsa will be available on Saturday,” per Jason Beede of the Orlando Sentinel.
Quarterback Dillon Gabriel jumped out to a Heisman-caliber start through two games. The sophomore took a step back last week, breaking a 5-game home streak of not throwing a single interception. But Gabriel remains lethal, and the Hawaii native has a quick release and perfect placement on deep throws — attributes Memphis’ defensive backs have to be wary of going into this matchup.
Cornerbacks T.J. Carter and Sylvonta Oliver will have their work cut out for them against UCF’s receiving corps, even if Nixon isn’t in the mix. The Knights run a heavy up-tempo offense with their receivers extremely spread out from one sideline to the other for extra spacing. UCF runs plenty of quick screens to the outside and calls a deep shot for Gabriel on nearly every drive, so stamina and snap awareness will play a significant factor for the Tiger secondary against Heupel’s system.
The Knights’ running attack has yet to take over a game this season, but Greg McCrae and Otis Anderson present a formidable duo built on speed, destined to break out for long runs at any time. The last line of defense is especially important when facing the quick-footed halfbacks, so strong safety Sanchez Blake Jr. (69 tackles in 2019) will have to step up to halt McCrae and Anderson in their tracks to prevent breakout touchdown runs.
Overall, Memphis needs to follow Tulsa’s second half film as an instruction manual in stifling this explosive offense. The Golden Hurricane brought copious amounts of pressure and frequently forced QB throwaways and holding penalties on the UCF offensive line. The Tigers’ pass rush can’t let Gabriel have clean pockets, or else he’ll have time to examine the field and make the high-IQ throw.
Penalties, particularly false starts will be something to watch for on UCF possessions. The Knights committed four consecutive false starts to start their Week 4 game at East Carolina and no adjustments were made in the following week. In the home opener versus Tulsa, UCF committed 18 penalties which cost 124 yards.
This loss will absolutely devastate either fanbase involved. Memphis and UCF have built such consistent winning programs over the years that a 1-2 start (for the Tigers) or a 2-2 start (for the Knights) would be world-crushing. Unfortunately for one of the perennial AAC powerhouses, a .500 or below record by Saturday night is inevitable.
The last three UCF-Memphis games have all come down to the fourth quarter, and they’ve all featured major point swings. With the high level of execution in which Dillon Gabriel and Brady White operate their offenses, no lead is safe in this one. Both defenses showed plenty of flaws in their last outing as well, so expect a high-scoring showcase in the Bluff City this weekend.
If there’s one x-factor whose performance will determine the result of this one, it’s UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel. The Knights are undefeated in games when Gabriel doesn’t throw an interception, and their offense often kicks it into an unstoppable gear when he enters a groove from the pocket. Memphis’ cornerbacks cannot get beat deep and deep zone coverage is highly recommended in this game. The Tigers’ corners have to win their one-on-one battles on the perimeter and smother the Knights’ receivers in order to force punts.
On the other side, UCF’s defense will have its hands full containing Memphis’ plethora of dangerous skill position players, especially Sean Dykes — an agile tight who runs routes like a wide receiver. The Tigers should receive decent production on outside runs in this game too, an area of focus UCF struggled to contain against Georgia Tech. But against a ball-hawking aggressive defense, committing minimal turnovers is the ultimate formula to besting the Knights.
Overall, this game will be close and feature an absurd amount of touchdowns. It’s an easy game to second guess when making a prediction, but due to the benefit of homefield advantage, I’ll pick Memphis to break the 13-game drought and win on a late scoring drive.
Prediction: Memphis 45, UCF 40