- Time and date: Friday, October 7 at 7:30 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN2
- Location: Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium — Memphis, TN
- Spread: Memphis (-3)
- ESPN FPI: Memphis has 65.3% chance to win
- All-time series: Houston leads, 16-14
- Last meeting: Houston 31, Memphis 13 — November 19, 2021
- Current streak: Houston, 1 (2021)
Setting the scene
It’s the end of an era. Houston and Memphis have been two of the AAC’s most successful programs over the years, with at least one of them appearing in five of the conference’s seven championship games since the event’s inception in 2015.
Houston and Memphis not only competed for AAC championships and qualified for New Year’s Six bowls while sharing a league — their rivalry produced some iconic moments too. In 2015, two ranked teams met with eyes fixated upon a New Year’s Six appearance and the Cougars overcame a 34-14 deficit in the fourth quarter to shock the Tigers as a crucial component of their first-ever AAC title run. In 2016, the final 7:30 of the fourth quarter featured four lead changes and Memphis emerged victorious in a 48-44 shootout on a last-minute Anthony Miller touchdown. Then in 2017, the Tigers overcame a 31-14 deficit to win 42-38 in crunch time, in a game which featured over 1,000 yards of combined offense.
As the Cougars officially rebrand to Big 12 membership on July 1, 2023, this final Houston-Memphis matchup for the foreseeable future will mark the end of an AAC rivalry which typically brought high-scoring affairs, furious comebacks, and enticing matchups.
Houston Cougars outlook
Week 6 will be the second consecutive consecutive Friday night AAC matchup for Houston (2-3, 0-1 AAC). The Cougars, widely expected to contend for the conference crown and the New Year’s Six in August, have yet to produce ideal results through five weeks. Four of Houston’s five games essentially came down to a single play and three of those contests were decided in overtime. While the Cougars are two plays away from 4-1, they’re also two or three plays away from 0-5, supporting the theory that football is indeed a game of inches.
Houston dropped its AAC opener to Tulane in gut-wrenching fashion, with the margin between victory and defeat separated by a Green Wave 4th and goal conversion in the final minute of regulation, injecting life into Tulane to seal the deal in overtime. Now, Houston is searching for momentum to restructure the story of its season.
But not everything can be restructured. The Cougars are as injury-riddled as any team in college football right now. After losing two defensive starters — defensive end Derek Parish and outside linebacker Malik Robinson — for the season and operating without two additional starters in the secondary last Friday — free safety Gervarrius Owens and cornerback Art Green — the injuries continue to pile up. Running back Ta’Zhawn Henry, who ranks second on the team in rushing and third in receiving, confirmed he will have surgery this week after exiting the Tulane game early.
While roughly half of the team’s starters have missed time this year, two constants in the offense are quarterback Clayton Tune and wide receiver Tank Dell. This duo elevated the Cougars to a top 25 passing offense a year ago and the connection is gaining rhythm each week. Last outing, Tune fired two touchdown passes to the All-AAC receiver, and although Dell is a focal point for opposing defenses, the electrifying playmaker is still certain to get his numbers. Dell has recorded 6+ receptions and 70+ yards in each of his last four contests, reaching the 120-yard threshold on two occasions over that span. Together, they’ll look to exploit a Memphis aerial defense which ranks bottom 10 in the FBS.
Henry won’t be available at running back, but the Cougars’ leading rusher Brandon Campbell remains in the lineup after returning last Friday from an ankle injury. Campbell now operates as the lead back for the foreseeable future and has thrived in his first season as a Cougar with three rushing touchdowns while playing a serviceable role in the receiving game. To further support Campbell in the run game, Houston will implement Stacy Sneed into the rotation more often, and also, Tune (191 rushing yards this season) will continue to pick up chunks of yardage with his mobility when teams drop seven or eight in coverage.
Houston’s defense was fairly sharp against Tulane only permitting two touchdowns to the Green Wave offense, but allowing one late touchdown drive overshadowed an otherwise dominant second half from the group. Yielding late scoring drives has been a recurring theme this season, as Houston wound up in overtime for the third time in five games despite a lead with under 60 seconds remaining. To prevent this, the Cougars hope to witness improved play from a secondary which ranks 114th nationally in passing yards allowed per game.
The Cougars also aim to reignite their defensive line against a Memphis front allowing three sacks per game. Houston may be without its leading sack generator in Parish, but the Cougars still possess a deep group in the trenches, led by D’Anthony Jones and Nelson Ceaser, who have two sacks apiece in 2022.
Memphis Tigers outlook
Memphis is quietly one of four AAC teams sporting the conference’s best overall record at 4-1. The Tigers defeated four consecutive FBS opponents by double-digits, including convincing wins over conference foes Navy and Temple. Memphis flew under the radar as No. 5 in the preseason media poll, but the Tigers have posted impressive results ever since a Week 1 loss to Mississippi State. However, Friday night’s final installment of the rivalry with Houston will be the toughest challenge for Memphis since that opener in Starkville.
When Memphis defeated Temple, the Tigers seemed to switch up their identity for one afternoon. Typically known for its offensive firepower, Memphis left some points on the board and instead played a near-perfect defensive outing. The Tigers suffocated Temple’s offense in every manner possible, limiting the Owls to a 2-of-16 showing on third down, an 0-of-3 showing on fourth down, stifling the run game to 2.4 yards per carry, and intercepting three passes. This was a welcome change from weeks prior, and the Tigers hope that performance becomes a trend rather than an anomaly.
Operating under new defensive coordinator Matt Barnes, it’s the oldest Tigers making the strongest impact. Free safety Quindell Johnson and outside linebacker Xavier Cullens were key members of Memphis’ historic 2019 Cotton Bowl team, and they’re still contributing in impressive fashion. Johnson and Cullens are the two leading tacklers on the defense and both veterans have two interceptions and at least one fumble recovery to their name this season.
On the offensive side of the ball, Memphis hopes to revert to its production to what it showed in Weeks 2 through 4 rather than against Temple. Quarterback Seth Henigan displayed the ability to light up opposing secondaries when exploding for 415 and 360 yards against Navy and Arkansas State, respectively. While Henigan’s passing numbers took a step back in the Tigers’ past two wins, he unlocked a new element of his game that wasn’t prevalent during his true freshman 2021 campaign. Henigan, similar to Tune, is picking up more yardage with his legs now, already besting his career-high in rushing through five weeks.
Outside of Henigan, Memphis hopes to establish a strong ground presence with its rotating trio of running backs — Brandon Thomas, Jay Ducker, and Asa Martin. While no individual halfback has eclipsed 84 rushing yards this season, each spoke on the three-pronged wheel has been highly efficient in the red zone. The triumvirate of backs combine for nine rushing touchdowns, allowing Memphis to field a top 10 red zone offense in the country with a 95.5 percent scoring rate.
Another common red zone threat is tight end Caden Prieskorn, who hauled in his team-high fifth touchdown reception against Temple — securing more receiving touchdowns than the rest of the team combined. While Prieskorn is ideal when the field widens by the goal line, Henigan utilizes a bevy of targets when navigating the offense down the field. Gabriel Rogers, Eddie Lewis, and Javon Ivory all get a even distribution of targets, forcing Houston’s secondary to zone in on several options rather than shadowing one receiver with a shutdown corner.
Games transpiring at the Liberty Bowl have boded well for the Tigers in recent history. Memphis has rattled off three consecutive wins over the Cougars at its home base, and overall, the Tigers boast a 23-2 record in their last 25 games at the venue.
This is a difficult game to get a read on, as many AAC matchups are this season given the wide-open nature of the conference. Injuries have considerably changed the dynamic of Houston, and the Cougars will operate without several key members going forward. Still, Houston has several advantages which make this a favorable matchup for the Cougars.
One, the Clayton Tune to Tank Dell connection recorded 100 yards against the Memphis defense last November and the pairing should be lethal at the Liberty Bowl unless the Tigers can sustain their level of defense from last Saturday. Two, Memphis’ offensive line hasn’t offered consistent protection to Seth Henigan this season, ranking near the nadir in sacks allowed per game. That could be a dangerous shortcoming against a deep Houston defensive line which regularly wreaks havoc in the backfield.
However, the Cougars haven’t led once at halftime this year, and their slow-starting nature should allow Seth Henigan and Co. plenty of time to pile on the points before a second half response from the visitors. No matter what the halftime score is, these AAC opponents have shown the ability to both score and allow points in a hurry down the stretch. So, expect a close one at the Liberty Bowl with a go-ahead touchdown occurring in the final five minutes.
Prediction: Houston 31, Memphis 27