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2020 Montgomery Bowl Preview: Memphis Tigers vs. Florida Atlantic Owls

Tigers attempt to break 5-game postseason losing streak in what could be Brady White’s final stand.

Memphis v Navy Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Game Notes

Time and Date: Wednesday, December 23 at 7:00 p.m. ET

Network: ESPN

Location: Cramton Bowl — Montgomery, AL

Spread: Memphis (-8)

ESPN FPI: Memphis has 64.8% chance to win

All-time series: Florida Atlantic leads, 1-0

Last meeting: Florida Atlantic 44, Memphis 27 — December 21, 2007

FAU and Memphis settled it on the field in the 2007 New Orleans Bowl. Owls quarterback Rusty Smith threw for 336 yards and five touchdowns to out-duel Tigers quarterback Martin Hankins in the Superdome. Now, a bowl rematch transpires 13 years later in the Montgomery Bowl.

So, is the Montgomery Bowl a new bowl game? Kind of, let’s clarify. This is not a new name for the Camellia Bowl, which has been played at the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, AL since 2014. This is a one-year, temporary bowl serving as a substitute for the inaugural Fenway Bowl, which was supposed to debut in Boston in December 2020. Thus, in 2020, two bowls games are set to materialize in Montgomery, AL — the Camellia Bowl between Marshall and Buffalo, and the Montgomery Bowl between Memphis and FAU.


Memphis Tigers outlook

The Memphis Tigers (7-3, 5-3 AAC) are bowling for the seventh consecutive season under the third different head coach. Ryan Silverfield is in his first year as the leader of the Tigers’ program, but he already has valuable postseason experience after coaching the 2019 Cotton Bowl against Penn State.

Memphis enters the Montgomery Bowl as the touchdown favorite, winning four of its last five games to finish the regular season. In Alabama, the Tigers look to bring bowl hardware back to their city for the first time since winning the inaugural, but now defunct Miami Beach Bowl in 2014.

One last dance for Brady White

It’s the final stand for Brady White, unless he exercises the extra year of eligibility that all FBS players have been granted. The senior quarterback has entered legendary status at the University of Memphis given his array of accolades over the past three seasons as the Tigers’ starting quarterback. White is the program’s all-time leader in passing yards, passing touchdowns, QB wins, and he spearheaded a journey to an AAC championship and a New Year’s Six bowl in 2019.

White, who launched his college football career at Arizona State in 2015, delivered a game-winning drive on Senior Day to topple Houston, 30-27. After a senior year which hasn’t mirrored the success of 2019, it was critical for White and the Tigers to enjoy a quality win to boost confidence heading into the bowl matchup.

Austin’s powers

Memphis’ offense has adversely been affected by opt-outs this season. The Tigers entered the year without star halfback Kenneth Gainwell. Then, after two games, wide receiver Damonte Coxie concluded his Memphis career, leaving an opportunity for a new skill position player to step up.

That role was instantly fulfilled by an unlikely hero, a former walk-on wide receiver. Calvin Austin III has been nothing but a playmaker this year, generating 1,025 yards and 10 touchdowns in 10 games for Memphis this season. Austin performed at an All-American level midseason where he posted five consecutive 100-yard games, guiding the Tigers to 38.2 points per game and a 4-1 record during the span.

Outside of Austin, other significant weapons to watch on Memphis’ offense include tight end Sean Dykes, who ranks third among all FBS tight ends in both receiving yards and touchdowns. The Tigers have shifted to a primarily passing-based offense, so expect most of their production to stem from Dykes and the receiving corps.

A member of Memphis’ running back group rushed for 98 or more yards in each of its first four games. In the final five contests against FBS opponents, the Tigers’ have failed to attain more than 98 rushing yards collectively as a team. Memphis’ rushing attack never regained its rhythm after a nightmare performance at Cincinnati, but the Tigers employ a running back by committee — featuring Rodrigues Clark, Kylan Watkins, and Asa Martin — who will rotate in hopes of re-establishing a ground presence.

Countering the Owls

Memphis’ Achilles heel this season is the passing defense. Only five teams in the FBS allow more yards through the air than the Tigers’ average of 303 per game — an average which includes an outlier point against an option-based Navy team that completed four passes on the Memphis defense.

That aspect of the Tigers’ defense has sharply improved since the return of starting cornerback T.J. Carter, who has served as a valuable cornerstone on the defense since 2018. Even though the defense frequently allows considerable gains on opponents’ passing plays, they make up for it by forcing turnovers. Memphis’ two leading tacklers — Quindell Johnson and Rodney Owens — both have three interceptions apiece in 2020, and the Tigers rank fourth in the AAC in interception rate.

Up front, Memphis is stronger at limiting the run unit, and the Tigers utilize several powerful bullrushers on the defensive line. Defensive end Morris Brash (8.0 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss) combines with defensive tackle O’Bryan Goodson (3.0 sacks, 7.0 tackles for loss) to create a sizable defensive line with the ability to out-strengthen opponents.


Florida Atlantic Owls outlook

The Florida Atlantic Owls (5-3, 4-2 C-USA) are participating in back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 2007 and 2008. FAU has never lost a postseason matchup, winning a pair of bowls in the late 2000s and another two in the late 2010s.

FAU, like Memphis, won its conference championship last year, lost its head coach to the offseason carousel, yet still continued its winning ways under a new frontman. Now, well-traveled head coach Willie Taggart leads the Owls, where he aims to capture his first bowl win against his old AAC rival.

Posey or Tronti?

The 2020 season may be winding down do its final games, but FAU continues to rotate its quarterbacks. After the sudden departure of 2019 All-C-USA quarterback Chris Robison, the Owls initiated the season with Nick Tronti at quarterback. Tronti delivered three wins in his first four starts, but FAU began experimenting with freshman Javion Posey thereafter. Posey’s first start was unforgettable. He rushed for 182 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries in a convincing win over arch-rival FIU — constructing the Owls’ best offensive performance of the season.

While Posey continued to dazzle with his mobility, a 2-interception outing in a loss to Georgia Southern caused Tronti to regain the starting position. Tronti focuses more on the air attack than Posey, but the team still remains in search of an established passing game. Tronti and Posey combine for one performance above 200 passing yards this season and neither signal caller owns a completion percentage better than 55 percent.

Expect both quarterbacks to make appearances in the Montgomery Bowl, and the Tigers’ defense must heighten its focus on containing the quarterback when Posey enters the mix.

Offensive names to watch

Florida Atlantic’s identity lies within the running game. The Owls rank 11th to last in the FBS in passing yards per game, but when firing it through the air, Clemson transfer receiver T.J. Chase is a safe bet to be the recipient of any pass. Chase decisively leads FAU with 322 receiving yards this year, averaging 16.1 per catch. He’ll be a key cog when battling a Memphis secondary which has struggled to contain the deep ball this season.

In the running game, FAU presents an emerging running back in James Charles. The senior shined in the team’s latest matchup versus Southern Miss, adding two touchdowns to a season-best 79-yard performance.

McCarthy’s final trial

Leighton McCarthy is one of the premier defenders in the C-USA. He leads the entire league in sacks with 9.0, ranking first among all FBS linebackers in the country. McCarthy, a former defensive end, is a senior that is possibly departing to the NFL after the conclusion of this game, so Wednesday night will be his final stand as an Owl. McCarthy and the FAU defense will be met with some pushback when rushing around the edges as the Memphis offensive line allows just two sacks per game.

It’s not just McCarthy registering the sacks. The team excels in this area as a unit, producing 3.1 per game to rank first in its conference. Invading the backfields is a major strength for FAU, and four other players besides McCarthy hold at least five tackles for loss to their name this year.

FAU’s defense took a week off from its typical fortitude in the regular season finale at Southern Miss, a shocking 45-31 loss. Still, the Owls check in at ninth nationally with 16.5 points allowed per game. FAU doesn’t score too much offensively — 20.0 points per game — so most of its contests are brutal slugfests where the defenses reign supreme. Turnovers aren’t commonplace for the Owls’ offense nor defense, so advantageous field position becomes a rarity when FAU is on the field.


Keys to the game

Memphis: Start fast. Memphis could have cleared its entire 2020 schedule, with the exception of Cincinnati, by abiding by this principle. Here are examples of the Tigers’ tendency to start slow this season:

  • Trailed Arkansas State (4-7) 14-7 after the first quarter (37-24 win)
  • Trailed SMU (7-3) 24-3 in the middle of the second quarter (30-27 loss)
  • Trailed UCF (6-3) 35-14 at the beginning of the third quarter (50-49 win)
  • Trailed Temple (1-6) 15-10 at halftime (41-29 win)
  • Trailed South Florida (1-8) 27-13 at halftime (34-33 win)
  • Led Stephen F. Austin (FCS) 20-14 in the late third quarter (56-14 win)

Memphis has been outscored 75-68 in first quarters this year and outscored 93-86 in second quarters this year, yet the Tigers still hold a .700 win percentage. Averaging 6.8 points per first quarter suggests the offense needs to elevate its game in the early going. Thus, Memphis will need more scripted drives, more tempo, and more quick screen passes to get the offense moving and on the scoreboard instead of playing from behind.

Florida Atlantic: Establish an air attack. Whether it’s Javion Posey or Nick Tronti starting under center, they must be comfortable with throwing downfield. FAU’s offense has been nothing to marvel at this season, but the Owls have a real opportunity to experiment with raiding Memphis’ secondary and racking up touchdown after touchdown. This was a technique utilized in the Boca Raton Bowl against SMU last December, and the Mustangs’ passing defense continued to wear down each time FAU dropped back to pass.


Prediction

On paper, Memphis should win this ballgame. And the Tigers should win comfortably. But Memphis has lost five consecutive bowl games, while FAU is 4-0 all-time and 2-0 in the previous three seasons. Last year, FAU shocked a favored SMU team, 52-28 — and the Owls were operating with an interim coach.

Also, Memphis — one year removed from a Cotton Bowl bid — is a very difficult team to read. The 7-3 record suggests the Tigers should at least be in consideration for the Top 25 rankings, but they’ve played excruciatingly close games against teams well below their stature. Memphis needed to overcome a 13-point deficit in the final four minutes to upend 1-8 South Florida and only managed to beat 3-7 Navy by a score of 10-7.

FAU’s most recent loss to Southern Miss was head-scratching, but it was one of the most promising performances by the Owls’ offense in the Willie Taggart era. Some of that offensive success translates to Montgomery and FAU pulls off a stunner.

Prediction: Florida Atlantic 28, Memphis 26