Time and Date: Saturday, November 7 at 12:00 p.m. ET
Location: Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium — Memphis, TN
Spread: Memphis (-17.5)
ESPN FPI: Memphis has 86.8% chance to win
All-time series: Memphis leads, 6-4
Last meeting: Memphis 49, South Florida 10 — November 23, 2019
The current brand of Memphis Tigers football was born in 2014, one year after the program’s admittance into the American Athletic Conference. After years of futility in the late 2000s and early 2010s, Memphis suddenly bred a winning culture and every season since 2014 has featured eight or more victories. Last year, the Tigers won the AAC outright for the first time, clinching a spot in a coveted New Year’s Six bowl.
But what we saw last Saturday in Cincinnati, was far from Memphis football. The Tigers have fielded a top 15 scoring offense every year since 2015. Even in 2020, Memphis’ offense was finally entering into a groove, dropping 50 and 41 points in victories over UCF and Temple. Against the No. 7 Bearcats’ relentless defense on the road, the Tigers’ offensive firepower disappeared. They only managed a mere 10 points in a shocking 49-10 loss, Memphis’ worst since 2011.
Only once did Memphis (3-2, 2-2 AAC) break the plane of the end zone, thanks to a 92-yard first quarter catch-and-run by wide receiver Tahj Washington. The Tigers were scoreless in the second half.
Memphis must move on and put the two conference losses against the AAC’s two currently-ranked teams in the past. Fortunately for the Tigers, the schedule eases up this Saturday when they host the clear-cut worst team in the conference, South Florida (1-5, 0-4 AAC).
Memphis Tigers outlook
Memphis is 0-2 against ranked teams, but the Tigers have done well against their other competition. There are valid arguments that they still deserve a ranking after easily handling an Arkansas State team that beat Kansas State and coming back down 21 to upset perennial AAC contender UCF. South Florida will be the team’s easiest competition yet, but high Vegas spreads come with massive responsibility. To simply put it, Memphis absolutely cannot afford to lose to South Florida.
Memphis still employs one of the nation’s best passers in Brady White. The third-year starter is averaging 338 yards per game through the air, while owning a respectable touchdown-to-interception ratio of 18-to-4. White faced a lot of pressure at Cincinnati, absorbing six sacks and forcing a lot of throws under pressure in down-and-distance situations. He still remained composed without a single interception and managed to record his third consecutive 300-yard game.
But the most worrisome facet of the offensive against Cincinnati was not the aerial attack, but rather, the run game. The Bearcats easily shed blocks to upend the Memphis running backs, and Rodrigues Clark ended up with the best rushing total on the team — 16 yards on 12 carries. It was an uncharacteristic game for Clark, who attained 98 or more yards in his other four outings. Overall, the Tigers ran 29 times for five yards, and the running backs will try to return to normalcy against South Florida’s 93rd ranked run defense.
One of the best stories of this Memphis season is the development of junior wide receiver Calvin Austin III. In the three games following Damonte Coxie’s decision to opt out of the season, Austin has fulfilled the role of wide receiver No. 1 with 22 receptions, 456 receiving yards, and 3 touchdowns. Austin is 12th in the country in receiving yards and nine names above him have played more than five games.
Washington, who ran a tunnel screen 92 yards to the house at Cincinnati, is stepping up too with 312 yards and 3 touchdowns in his last three games. One target Memphis has to re-energize offensively is tight end Sean Dykes. He was White’s go-to connection at the beginning of the season, but Dykes has been limited to three receptions and nine yards in the past two weeks. With 22 receptions and four touchdowns in his first three games, utilizing the 6’2”, 224-pound red zone threat is what Memphis needs to recapture the magic on offense.
Defensively for Memphis, the secondary has been a disaster. The Tigers secondary has been without T.J. Carter since the Sept. 5 opener, and the unit now ranks among the worst in the FBS in several statistical categories. Memphis is the only team in the country allow more than 400 passing yards per game with a multi-game sample size. Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder had no problem letting it rip last week, mounting a season-high in passing yards with an 81% completion rate.
Fortunately for Memphis, South Florida isn’t exactly a passing juggernaut. The Bulls average well under 200 yards per game in that department, ranking in the top 25 of the country in interceptions thrown. Memphis recorded one interception a week ago and snagged three against Temple, so forcing turnovers has been a particular strength of the defense.
South Florida Bulls outlook
Jeff Scott’s first year at the helm has been a mammoth of a rebuilding project. Winless in conference play, the program is currently situated in the role of the AAC formerly reserved for UConn. In South Florida’s best opportunity to escape the cellar, it took a 44-24 shellacking at the hands of 1-4 East Carolina in its home stadium on Oct. 10.
But with every rebuilding project comes a sign of promise and a sign of progress. One week after a troubling showing versus the Pirates, South Florida nearly stole a victory in Philadelphia from Temple. The Bulls watched an 11-point second half lead quickly slip away as the Owls scored 19 unanswered. A failed 2-point attempt with a minute left prevented the Bulls from forcing overtime, and they remain in search of their first FBS win since Oct. 26, 2019.
Even past the season’s midway point, there is an ongoing quarterback competition in Tampa. Jordan McCloud, the team’s 2019 starter, is splitting reps with FCS transfer Noah Johnson. The latter showed signs of promise in his first major outing as a Bull, completing 67% of passes for 150 yards. Whoever is under center must focus on avoid sacks, as South Florida is fifth in the FBS by allowing 3.9 per contest.
South Florida has yet to enjoy a 100-yard rusher yet this season, but AAC opponents understand the viable threat running back Johnny Ford presents. Ford rushed for nearly 800 yards and eight touchdowns on 6.8 yards per carry back in 2018. His best outing this season (70 yards, 11.7 yards per carry) was against Notre Dame’s top 10 run defense, so the junior halfback has proven that he can produce at any time against any opponent.
The Bulls’ defense can be a feisty unit. They forced currently-ranked No. 6 Cincinnati into many tough situations, intercepting three passes, recovering a fumble, and limiting the Bearcats to just 28 points and 143 passing yards. Even in their last game against Tulsa, South Florida forced five punts, intercepted a pass, and made the Golden Hurricane earn their points in the first half.
The Bulls are dead last in the country at pressuring the quarterback, producing just three sacks in six games. It will be a significant change of pace for White and the Memphis offense, which faced constant pressure from Cincinnati’s front-seven last Saturday afternoon.
There’s not too much to this one. Memphis will win handily at home and re-establish itself as a contender for its fourth-straight AAC Championship Game appearance.
The wounds from Cincinnati will quickly heal, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Memphis will return to a sense of normalcy with another 300-yard performance by Brady White and a rejuvenation from Rodrigues Clark in the running game. After allowing nearly every pass to result in a completion a week ago, it’s also an ideal day to fix the flaws in the secondary and focus on improving the secondary.
It’s shaping up to be a landslide Tigers victory in their first win over South Florida in Memphis since 2014.
Prediction: Memphis 49, South Florida 18