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2020 Week 9 Preview: Memphis Tigers @ Cincinnati Bearcats

A rematch of last year’s AAC Championship comes with conference title (and College Football Playoff!) implications.

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at Memphis Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Game Notes

Time and Date: Saturday, October 31 at 12:00 p.m. ET

Network: ESPN

Location: Nippert Stadium — Cincinnati, OH

Spread: Cincinnati (-6.5)

ESPN FPI: Cincinnati has 61.8% chance to win

All-time series: Memphis leads, 23-13

Last meeting: Memphis 29, Cincinnati 24 — December 7, 2019


Last year’s matchup between Memphis and Cincinnati was so good, we ran it back.

One week later. Same location. Same teams. Higher stakes. Cincinnati traveled back to Memphis the first week of December for the American Conference Championship Game, with a coveted prize of a Cotton Bowl berth on the line.

Same result. After Memphis edged Cincinnati 34-24 in round one on Black Friday, the Tigers saw more of the same in round two. Memphis scored a go-ahead touchdown with 74 seconds left to clinch its first New Year’s Six appearance along with its first conference title since joining the AAC.

This year’s matchup presents AAC title stakes, but there’s something even deeper on the line for No. 7 Cincinnati — College Football Playoff stakes. UCF opened the door for playoff talk involving the American Conference after posting two consecutive undefeated regular seasons with an impressive Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl victory over Auburn in 2017. Now, Cincinnati is one spot below UCF’s AAC record for the highest AP Poll ranking in the conference’s history. One difference? UCF finished the 2017 season at No. 6, while Cincinnati (4-0, 2-0 AAC) is No. 7 with a lot of football to be played.

Memphis (3-1, 2-1 AAC) is inexplicably unranked after an impressive comeback victory over the Knights two weeks ago and a solid showing against Temple last Saturday. The Tigers hope to knock off Cincinnati for the sixth-straight meeting and put rest to the Bearcats’ College Football Playoff dreams.


Offensive Breakdown

Memphis

From the Justin Fuente era to the Mike Norvell era and now into the Ryan Silverfield era, one thing is for certain. Memphis is going to have an elite offense. The Tigers’ offense has been on a tear ever since their deflating loss to SMU. Memphis piled 50 points onto UCF and registered 703 yards in a classic shootout two weeks ago. In the follow-up performance versus Temple, Memphis collected 41 points and emerged on top with 489 yards of offense.

The Tigers are by all means a second half team. Slow starts have hampered Memphis from achieving its true potential all season long, dating back to the Arkansas State game. Memphis has trailed at halftime in all three AAC games, falling behind by as many as 21 points to SMU and UCF. Yet, the Tigers are a fumble away from faring 2-0 in games when down three touchdowns — a testament to how dominant Memphis’ second half offense has been.

Quarterback Brady White is playing like the college football veteran that he is. The longtime Memphis starter reset his career-high with 486 passing yards and six touchdowns in the battle with UCF. While those extravagant numbers didn’t continue against Temple’s defense, White still managed 313 yards and four touchdowns last Saturday.

White’s primary playmaker at the wide receiver position was Damonte Coxie, but Coxie opted out of the season two weeks ago to focus on preparation for the NFL Draft. Without a clear-cut No. 1 receiver for an instant, Memphis needed somebody to assume that role and that player became Calvin Austin III. In two games without Coxie, Austin averages 7.5 receptions, 167.5 yards, and 1.5 touchdowns per contest. The talented route runner hauled in the game-winning score against UCF and the go-ahead touchdown against Temple. Austin has a knack for involvement on key plays when the offense needs them the most.

NCAA Football: Memphis at Southern Methodist
Calvin Austin III has emerged as Memphis’ new No. 1 option at wide receiver.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Tahj Washington has stepped up as White’s No. 2 option in the receiving group. Washington’s last two outings have produced 131 and 77 yards, and the freshman wideout was instrumental last weekend with two touchdowns in the victory. Another freshman, Javon Ivory, never even caught a pass until two weeks ago, and now he looks primed to star as another weapon in Memphis’ revolving door of talented skill position players.

The “next man up” success isn’t limited to wide receiver on Memphis’ offense. The running back room experienced a similar devastating blow when Kenneth Gainwell decided to opt out of the season. But Memphis continues to excel in the rushing department and running back Rodrigues Clark is averaging over 105 yards per game through four performances. He’s been remarkably consistent by providing the team between 98 and 112 yards each showing, and that reliability would be extremely welcome against a defense like Cincinnati.

The final playmaker to take note of in Silverfield’s offense is tight end Sean Dykes. He really burst onto the scene with 137 receiving yards and two touchdowns in the opener. While Dykes’ production has quieted in the past few weeks, he remains Memphis’ most dangerous threat in the red zone. Cincinnati doesn’t allow many explosive plays so reliance on Dykes to move the sticks and reach the end zone will be key for the offense in its toughest matchup yet.

Cincinnati

Cincinnati finally found the offensive performance it was looking for. The Bearcats entered Saturday’s matchup at SMU averaging 26 points per game against FBS opponents, which were limited to Army and South Florida. A wake-up call was needed, and Luke Fickell’s team definitely arose from its slumber.

Cincinnati’s 42-13 victory over the Mustangs was the program’s largest blowout ever over another ranked opponent, and a significant contributing factor was the rise of Desmond Ridder. The junior quarterback shook off his 3-interception performance against South Florida to deliver one of the best nights of his career. While he only threw for 126 yards, Ridder protected the ball and avoided a turnover. But on the ground, he was the most fearless player on the field. Ridder rushed for 179 yards on eight carries, scoring three touchdowns in the process. He took zero sacks and sealed the statement victory with a dagger 91-yard touchdown run.

Memphis will have to be on full alert for Ridder’s scrambling ability because Cincinnati’s offense operates best when he excels outside the pocket. In addition to Ridder’s 179 yards, another Cincinnati runner pushed past the century mark in the win over SMU. Gerrid Doaks was in need of a breakout performance after averaging under 2.5 yards per carry in each of his first two games. Now, Doaks has strung together back-to-back 100-yard outings. The 6’0”, 230-pound halfback bulldozes defenses with his physical, downhill running style. Doaks is responsible for eight total touchdowns this season and he won’t be an easy man to tackle for the Tigers defense. With a nimble quarterback in Ridder and a powerful halfback in Doaks manning the backfield, the Memphis defense will have its hands full when trying to contain the Bearcats’ zone read schemes.

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at Southern Methodist
Cincinnati RB Gerrid Doaks has been a touchdown machine this season with 8 scores through 4 games.
Tim Flores-USA TODAY Sports

Cincinnati’s passing attack is nothing to rave about, but it gets the job done. The Bearcats have a strong set of blockers at the receiver positions, so they naturally are at their best when working the screen game instead of firing shots downfield. There is no one player who Memphis needs to key on because Ridder loves spreading the wealth with his targets. Eight different Bearcats caught a pass against SMU and Trent Tucker led the team in yards with 24.


Defensive Breakdown

Memphis

Memphis should be wary of the fact that Cincinnati’s offensive line is not very permeable. SMU failed to produce a single sack on a Bearcats line which allows an average of one per contest. The Tigers’ pass rush looked solid against Temple, registering four sacks in the 41-29 victory. Senior defensive tackle O’Bryan Goodson has been a force in the bull rush against opposing offensive lines this year. He has team-highs 3.0 sacks and 5.0 tackles for loss to his name, and he’ll be relied upon to pressure Ridder on dropbacks and when escaping the pocket.

Although most 3-4 defenses feature the linebacking group, the defensive line is the strongest unit on Memphis’ defense. Defensive end Morris Joseph also has three sacks in the books this season while the other defensive end, Joseph Dorceus, is a powerful run stopper up front.

The Tigers often win battles at the line of scrimmage, but Memphis simply cannot stop opposing quarterbacks from going ballistic. The Tigers allowed SMU quarterback Shane Buechele to attain 474 yards and three touchdowns, UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel to record 601 yards and five touchdowns, and Temple quarterback Anthony Russo to manage 387 yards and four touchdowns. Cincinnati does not present a similar passing threat, but Memphis needs to play a part in the turnover game when the Bearcats drop back to throw.

Cornerback T.J. Carter has been unavailable for the past two games due to an injury sustained at SMU, and he is questionable to return. If the former All-AAC cornerback is ready to go, he is the most talented player on Memphis’ defense and will quickly amend the Tigers’ alarming pass defense rank.

Cincinnati threw three interceptions against South Florida, the same number of interceptions Memphis recorded against Russo last week. After failing to pick off a single pass in their first two games of AAC competition, the Tigers must make winning the turnover battle a priority against the Bearcats’ relentless defense.

Cincinnati

There will be a heated competition between the Memphis offense and Cincinnati defense to determine which is the superior unit in this matchup. Right now, the Cincinnati defense is one of the premier groups in college football and the unit has quite the résumé.

Throw Army’s triple option offense at Cincinnati, and the result is zero offensive touchdowns and a mere field goal to show. Or, try Shane Buechele and SMU’s air raid against the Bearcats, and the result is 4.7 yards per pass, a 1-to-1 touchdown to interception ratio, and just 13 points on the scoreboard.

Cincinnati’s defense has the answer to every scheme, and Memphis’ offense should expect to be challenged unlike it has been so far this season. Among teams with multiple games played, the Bearcats rank sixth in the FBS in scoring defense, allowing just 12.5 points per game. Rising star defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman bring the energy to the sideline and captains a versatile defense which ranks top 20 nationally in opponent yards per carry and top 10 in opponent completion percentage.

Senior outside linebacker Jarell White plays the same position Freeman played at Ohio State. Freeman’s defense operates through White, and the star linebacker is averaging over 10 tackles per game with 5.5 tackles for loss collected this season.

South Florida v Cincinnati
Outside linebacker Jarell White is the leader of Cincinnati’s 12.5 PPG scoring defense.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Cincinnati also features arguably the deepest cornerback group in college football. Sophomore cornerback Ahmad Gardner is building upon a tremendous freshman campaign in 2019. He leads the team with three interceptions and has shown marvelous ability in containing the outsides with 16 tackles. Fellow cornerbacks Coby Bryant and Arquon Bush each have a pair of interceptions this season. The trio of corners will draw the most intriguing matchup of the upcoming game, pitted up against the triumvirate of Austin, Washington, and Ivory.


Prediction

Don’t let the No. 7 vs. unranked fool you. This is essentially a matchup of two of the top 20 teams in the country.

Memphis received the luxury of facing Cincinnati at the Liberty Bowl in both of last year’s showdowns, but this year the setting moves to Nippert Stadium. This is the most important game Cincinnati has hosted since 2009, when Brian Kelly’s Bearcats were situated in the top five and hosting a ranked West Virginia team at the tail-end of the season.

The Tigers are more offensively sound than Cincinnati by a longshot. Memphis has virtually no weaknesses offensively, and its myriad of capable skill position players are a lot for most defenses to handle, but Cincinnati isn’t most defenses. Both the Tiger offense and Bearcat defense will earn its fair share of “wins” in the matchup, but the game might come down to what happens when the premier groups are on the sidelines.

On the other side, it’s a struggling Cincinnati offense that’s finally turning the corner against a struggling Memphis defense that’s finally turning the corner. Both of these units experienced their best showing in AAC play a week ago, and perhaps it’s this battle which determines the victor of Saturday’s matchup. Cincinnati lacks downfield passing ability, which is usually the Achilles’ heel for the Memphis defense. Thus, stopping the run becomes more of a focus for the Tigers, and they are skilled enough in the front seven to take down the Bearcats.

Prediction: Memphis 34, Cincinnati 28