- Time and Date: Friday, October 22 at 7:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN2
- Location: Bounce House — Orlando, FL
- Spread: Memphis (-2)
- ESPN FPI: UCF has 64.0% chance to win
- All-time series: UCF leads, 13-2
- Last meeting: Memphis 50, UCF 49 — October 17, 2020
Setting the scene
This is the premier rivalry which defined the pinnacle of AAC football over the past half-decade. Three consecutive AAC titles and New Year’s Six appearances were collected by the Knights and Tigers from 2017-19. A series heavily dominated by UCF finally swung in Memphis’ favor last October when the Tigers stormed back from 21 down to secure a 50-49 victory. That matchup featured 798 yards of offense from UCF and 701 from Memphis and the rivals combined for 75 first downs in the exhilarating showcase. When these programs clash on the gridiron, shootouts are the expected result. Three of the last four meetings have featured 97 or more combined points, including the 2017 and 2018 AAC Championship Games.
This year, the programs have a different feel, and bowl eligibility feels like the common goal for UCF (3-3, 1-2 AAC) and Memphis (4-3, 1-2 AAC) alike. Current coaches Gus Malzahn and Ryan Silverfield have yet to experience an AAC Championship Game setting, but they’ll look to take the necessary steps to improve their programs with a win Friday night. The Bounce House will certainly be shaking Friday night in Orlando — the raucous setting where the Knights hold a 6-0 record against the Tigers in the series.
Memphis Tigers outlook
Memphis picked up a desperately needed win last Thursday to conclude a 3-game skid which featured blown leads of 21-0 and 17-0. The Tigers’ explosive offense combined with second half defensive success allowed the team to revert to +.500 territory. Now, Memphis aims to win its second consecutive matchup over a UCF team which it has historically been a thorn in the Tigers’ side.
It will be a battle of true freshman quarterbacks at the Bounce House. Memphis trots out Seth Henigan, who currently ranks sixth in the country in passing yards and 10th in passing touchdowns. Henigan has been a pleasant surprise for a Tigers program which has witnessed sustained quarterback success since the mid-2010s days of Paxton Lynch. The freshman efficiently threw 12 times for 215 yards and a pair of touchdowns against Navy. While the attempts were limited, Henigan has also shown the ability to scorch the stat sheet for 400 yards on multiple occasions this year when the play-calling gives him the freedom.
Memphis’ freshman contributions on offense aren’t limited to quarterback. Running back Brandon Thomas is 22nd in the country in rushing yards. He started off the season with 338 yards in his first two games, and while he has since leveled to the mean, Memphis still presents a danger on the ground even beyond Thomas’ endeavors. Rodrigues Clark serves as a viable alternate option, but his status for Friday is unknown due to injury. Against Navy, Marquavius Weaver stepped in to lead all halfbacks with 65 yards and a touchdown, so Weaver’s role in the offense could increase going forward.
The most explosive weapon on offense lies within the receiving group. Calvin Austin III is on track for an All-American caliber season. The former walk-on is second in receiving yards and tied for fourth in receiving touchdowns in the FBS at the moment. While Memphis refrained from airing it out at its usual rate against Navy, Austin still made an impact with his home run play ability. He handled a reverse and sprinted 69 yards to the end zone to manufacture one of Memphis’ four plays that traveled 45+ yards in the victory. Austin was a handful to the UCF secondary last October, and he tallied nine receptions, 151 yards, and two touchdowns in the comeback win.
Memphis’ last defensive performance was its best of the year. The Tigers folded in several second halves this year, but they held Navy to 35 yards on the final four possessions in the Week 7 matchup. Memphis’ linebackers have excelled in stopping the run to an extend and the Tigers are one of 48 FBS teams to allow an opponent rushing average under 3.8 — and that is with a pass rush which ranks 114th in sacks per game. With 77 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss, J.J. Russell operates at the heart of the defense and will be the ringleader in stopping the Knights’ prolific rushing attack.
UCF Knights outlook
What happened Saturday in Cincinnati was uncharted territory for UCF. The Knights hadn’t lost a regular season game by more than one possession since 2016. In fact, multi-score games were guaranteed UCF victories over the past four seasons. But this time, a top five Cincinnati program raced to a 35-0 lead and wound up winning 56-21, handing the Knights their worst loss since 2015. Now, it’s regrouping time for a program aiming to avoid its first losing season in five years.
There aren’t many teams in college football that are more unrecognizable from its Week 1 iteration than UCF. Injuries have plagued the Knights more than almost any other team in college football to the point where they operated without their starting QB, lead halfback, top receiver, and two starting defensive tackles for several weeks.
Last Saturday, one hero of the first few outings returned to action. Northwestern transfer halfback Isaiah Bowser posted 201 yards from scrimmage in the opener on Boise State and registered four touchdowns in the following game against Bethune-Cookman before sustaining an injury at Louisville. While Bowser’s showing against a stout Cincinnati run defense wasn’t ideal, his presence on the field should allow UCF to control the rushing attack against most other AAC programs. Bowser brings the power to the backfield, but speed back Johnny Richardson will also lend a hand to the offense after posting a pair of 100-yard games during the No. 1 halfback’s absence.
In the 2020 matchup, UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel aired it out for 601 yards and five touchdowns. Unfortunately for the Knights, a clavicle injury leaves him sidelined for Friday night. True freshman Mikey Keene is slated to make his fourth start for UCF. The youngster is less than a year removed from high school football, and he’s looking to make massive strides in his game. Keene has thrown four touchdowns and four interceptions this year, and his season-high in passing sits at 194 yards. Speedy deep threat Ryan O’Keefe and Tennessee transfer Brandon Johnson are Keene’s preferred targets, and the two wideouts will look for a resurgent performance against Memphis’ 116th ranked pass defense.
On the defensive side, UCF has been a bit of a mixed bag. Forcing turnovers has always been a specialty for the Knights, but getting stops is more of an issue. Last week, the rushing defense could not contain Cincinnati halfback Jerome Ford, and he attained 189 yards and four touchdowns on the ground in the blowout. With defensive tackle Kalia Davis out for the season, UCF’s run defense has taken a hit in the ability to clog the gaps up front. Still, the Knights have plenty of talent in defensive end Big Kat Bryant (3.5 TFLs) and inside linebacker Tatum Bethune (42 tackles) in order to stifle opponents at the line of scrimmage.
UCF hasn’t lost in a full capacity Bounce House since the 2016 season. However, many firsts since 2016 or 2015 are striking this injury-riddled team — a group that has yet to cover a spread against an FBS opponent this season. The Knights fell victim to a pair of upsets and staved off a third one against East Carolina after stringing together a gutsy game-winning drive. The only time UCF won convincingly this year was against an FCS opponent, so to say this will be a challenging game for the Knights given their current depth might be an understatement.
The Knights will require the most productive performance of the Mikey Keene era against a beatable Memphis’ secondary because this game doesn’t seem headed toward low-scoring territory like the ECU matchup.
Memphis has shown the capability of piling on points, but the offense needs to act in a more consistent manner, especially after stalling in the second halves of the UTSA and Temple losses. Last week was a step in the right direction with Henigan finding openings in the defense downfield in his limited dropbacks. If the Tigers can establish Brandon Thomas in the ground game like Cincinnati did with Jerome Ford a week ago, they should be in for a productive showing in Orlando.
This game will simply come down to which offense can create more explosive plays, and given the current teams’ depth charts, Memphis appears to have the edge at the Bounce House.
Prediction: Memphis 38, UCF 28