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2021 Week 3 Preview: Mississippi State Bulldogs @ Memphis Tigers

A 3-0 record is on the line as Memphis and Mississippi State clash in the Liberty Bowl.

NCAA Football: Nicholls State at Memphis Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Game Notes

Time and Date: Saturday, September 18 at 4:00 p.m. ET

Network: ESPN2

Location: Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium — Memphis, TN

Spread: Mississippi State (-3)

ESPN FPI: Mississippi State has 50.7% chance to win

All-time series: Mississippi State leads, 33-11

Last meeting: Mississippi State 59, Memphis 14 — September 1, 2011

More cowbell? No, less cowbell

In the gutsiest move of the week, the Liberty Bowl declared war on the Mississippi State fanbase by disallowing Bulldogs’ fans to bring in their coveted cowbells. Predictably, this policy has not been received well by the Mississippi State faithful.

Listening to the cowbells ring at Davis-Wade Stadium in Starkville is one of college football’s unique traditions, but the Tigers’ official account tweeted that artificial noisemakers are prohibited in Memphis.

The lack of cowbell cluttering should amplify Memphis’ home-field advantage Saturday, especially when the Tigers are on offense.

Memphis Tigers outlook

Memphis entered the 2021 season as one of the bigger question marks in the AAC, due to losing record-breaking quarterback Brady White and a slew of other contributors. But Ryan Silverfield’s program is sitting at 2-0 with a juggernaut of an offense. The Tigers average an FBS-best 634.5 yards per game and rank sixth in scoring offense after dropping 97 points through two outings.

At quarterback, the Tigers appear to trot out a viable successor to White. True freshman Seth Henigan is already lighting up college football defenses at age 18. Henigan is fresh off a road performance in which he delivered 417 passing yards and five touchdowns without an interception. He ranks among the nation’s elite in a multitude of statistical categories, and he currently averages over 10 yards per dropback.

Memphis’ rushing game has also thrived under the direction of a freshman. Brandon Thomas generated 147 rushing yards in the opener at 9.2 yards per carry. Yet, he topped those numbers in Week 2 by pummeling the Arkansas State defense with 191 yards and two touchdowns at 10.6 yards per carry. Breakaway runs have been frequent for the halfback who leads the entire nation in rushing yards heading into Week 3.

The Tigers’ skill position standouts aren’t limited to the backfield. Wide receiver Calvin Austin III is also among the national leaderboards. Ranked fourth in the FBS in receiving yards and second in receiving touchdowns, Austin is picking up from where he left in 2020. The First Team All-AAC standout collected 239 yards and three touchdowns in the 55-50 win over Arkansas State, picking apart the Red Wolves’ defense with a bevy of quick slants and cuts upfield.

NCAA Football: Montgomery Bowl-Memphis vs Florida Atlantic
Former walk-on Calvin Austin III finished eighth in receiving yards and sixth in receiving touchdowns during his breakout 2020 season.
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

The tight end also plays a vital role in Memphis’ lethal offense. Sean Dykes is the sixth-most productive tight end in the country when it comes to receiving production. Dykes is coming off a stellar performance in which he corralled nine receptions for 143 yards and two touchdowns. He presents receiver-like route-running ability for a tight end and the 6’2” Houston native serves as the ideal midfield target for Henigan.

Other than allowing four sacks a week ago, there aren’t too many complaints with the Memphis offense through two games. The defense, however, is a different story. Memphis produced 680 yards of offense against Arkansas State, but the Red Wolves produced 680 yards of offense on the Tigers.

In the final 18 minutes of action, Memphis conceded massive plays seemingly every snap. During that time frame, Arkansas State manufactured four touchdown drives of 70+ yards, and three of those drives required under two minutes to score. Red Wolves’ backup quarterback James Blackman didn’t even check in until under three minutes remaining in the third quarter, yet he lit up the Memphis defense for over 300 passing yards and four touchdowns. To put it lightly, there are holes in the secondary.

Memphis’ ability to stop the run game forced Arkansas State to punt seven times, which seems like an awfully high number of punts for a 55-50 finish — that’s how quick the scoring drives were. The Red Wolves’ barely mustered three yards per carry and no rusher on the team managed 40 yards.

An air raid opponent awaits on the schedule, which doesn’t bode the best for Memphis’ defense, based on its Week 2 performance.

Mississippi State Bulldogs outlook

Mississippi State was almost on the verge of 0-1. With under 13 minutes to play in Week 1, Louisiana Tech had the Bulldogs on the ropes. Facing a 34-14 deficit, Mississippi State strung together three scoring possessions while its defense forced three-and-outs in between. The Bulldogs escaped with a 1-point victory, and then took on a new identity in Week 2.

Mississippi State’s offense didn’t ignite like it did in the fourth quarter of the opener against NC State, but the defense delivered its best showing of the Mike Leach era. The Bulldogs won the turnover battle 3-0 and produced four sacks to suffocate a quality Wolfpack team in 24-10 fashion. That will be the type of defensive performance Leach demands when facing an offense of Memphis’ caliber.

Memphis committed its first two turnovers of the season by losing a pair of fumbles last week. Mississippi State counters as one of the top turnover producers in the country, checking in at 11th in takeaways per game. The Bulldogs have a heightened sense of aggression on defense this year and its young talent from the 2020 team is quickly developing.

One of those talents is cornerback Emmanuel Forbes, who led the team 11 tackles and chipped in a sack against NC State. Forbes established himself as one of the premier ballhawks in the country as a freshman, garnering five interceptions and racing three back for pick sixes. The lockdown corner should be the primary matchup for Calvin Austin III, creating one of the premier one-on-one matchups in all Week 3 games.

NCAA Football: Armed Forces Bowl-Tulsa vs Mississippi State
Emmanuel Forbes led all FBS players with 183 interception return yards in his freshman campaign.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Forbes is one of many talented sophomore on this roster. Quarterback Will Rogers stepped into the starting role midseason last year to replace veteran K.J. Costello. The air raid style has grown on Rogers, who is already showing improvements in efficiency this year. Rogers is completing 75 percent of attempts through two games and has already dished in five touchdown passes. Last year, he only managed 11 in more than three times the attempts.

Rogers’ ability to make smarter throws and limit turnovers has worked well for the offense. But it should be concerning to Memphis’ 127th ranked passing defense that he routinely throws over 45 times per game.

When the ball flies through the air, the Tigers should have their eyes set on another sophomore talent. Jaden Walley strung together four consecutive 100-yard games to conclude the 2020 season and he already has made an imprint in 2021 with two touchdowns and 108 receiving yards. If current statistical trends continue, Walley is poised for his best performance of the young season at the Liberty Bowl this Saturday.

Mississippi State only fed its running backs 12 handoffs in the victory over NC State. Given Memphis’ formidability in the front seven, the Bulldogs may keep the run-to-pass ratio at a minimum once again. But running back Jo’quavious Marks is fully capable of churning out yardage. He obtained 71 yards and two touchdowns on Louisiana Tech, keeping Mississippi State’s undefeated record afloat in Week 1.


This might be the most fun matchup of the Week 3 schedule.

Memphis averages more yards offensively than any team in the country. Memphis also allows more yards than all but eight FBS teams. Mix that with Mike Leach’s air raid offense, and we’re bound to witness a classic shootout in the Liberty Bowl.

Seth Henigan and Will Rogers will drop back to pass an insane number of times. At the moment, it appears the Tigers are more potent on offense, but Mississippi State exhibits a massive defensive advantage that was especially noticeable in the NC State game.

When factoring in how quickly Mississippi State overcame a three-score deficit against Louisiana Tech, and combining that with Memphis allowing 300+ passing yards and four touchdowns in the final 18 minutes against Arkansas State, it seems the Bulldogs have the offensive firepower to quickly erase any deficit in this one. No lead will be insurmountable for Mississippi State this Saturday, which plays well into the road team’s favor.

Memphis’ offense will still get its fair share of points due to the sheer talent at the skill positions, but it won’t be enough. Mike Leach and Co. prevail in Memphis by picking apart the Tigers’ porous secondary.

Prediction: Mississippi State 49, Memphis 44