- Time and date: Friday, October 13 at 7:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN
- Location: Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium — Memphis, TN
- Spread: Tulane (-3.5)
- Over/under: 56
- All-time series: Memphis leads, 24-14-1
- Last meeting: Tulane 38, Memphis 28 — October 22, 2022
- Current streak: Tulane, 1 (2022)
Setting the scene
This is possibly the AAC game of the year, equipped with potential New Year’s Six stakes.
Memphis and Tulane share the conference’s best overall record at 4-1, and both the Tigers and Green Wave remain undefeated in AAC play while dropping just one hard-fought battle to an SEC opponent. Although conference realignment altered the league’s nucleus of powers, the AAC typically receives a New Year’s Six bid — earning the honor in each of the last six seasons.
Maintaining just one loss may be essential to remaining on track for the New Year’s Six, only adding a sweetened prize to an already-enticing matchup. And perhaps for the loser, it’s not necessarily a goodbye, but a see you later in the AAC Championship Game? Only time will tell.
Tulane Green Wave outlook
Tulane (4-1, 1-0 AAC) wears the crown of the conference until further notice. The Green Wave have only lost to one AAC opponent since the start of the 2022 season, and they eventually exacted revenge for that loss to UCF in last December’s conference title game. And Tulane proved it remains the team to beat in the conference after claiming a 35-23 victory over UAB in the AAC opener.
Willie Fritz’s team continues to rely on star quarterback Michael Pratt, who is in his fourth season as the program’s starter. Pratt suffered a knee injury in the fourth quarter of a spectacular 14-of-15, 294-yard, 4-touchdown outing against South Alabama in the opener, but he returned to the lineup Week 4 to give Tulane’s offense an increased sense of comfort. Efficiency is the name of Pratt’s game this year, and he owns an impressive 75.4 completion rate on the year, averaging 11.0 yards per attempt with an 8-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
As the yards per attempt suggests, Tulane’s offense has taken on a more explosive form in the passing game last year. The 2022 Green Wave were highly reliant on workhorse running back Tyjae Spears, but the team’s MO has shifted ever since Spears declared for the draft last January. Tulane exhibits the perfect personnel for a downfield passing game, possessing a pair of speedy receiving threats in Jha’Quan Jackson and Lawrence Keys III. That duo combines for eight receiving touchdowns this year, and seven of those scores were deep shots beyond 30 yards. Getting Jackson and Keys in one-on-one coverage on posts and go routes will be a highly-utilized tactic by the Green Wave on Friday.
Although there were several candidates at the beginning of the season, Tulane has settled on a No. 1 running back to succeed Spears. Freshman Makhi Hughes fielded 22 carries for a career-high 123 yards last outing against UAB, and after averaging over 5.0 yards per rush in four of five games this year, Tulane should have increased comfort with Hughes manning the run game — especially since he’s supported by a talented offensive line which features 2022 First Team All-AAC selections Sincere Haynesworth and Prince Pines.
The trenches are where Tulane wins many battles, and that also includes the defensive side. The Green Wave operate with the best front in the conference, anchored by Patrick Jenkins at the defensive tackle spot. With Jenkins causing havoc in the interior and Darius Hodges using a series of moves to fly past opposing tackles, Tulane is tied for 12th in the FBS at 3.4 sacks per game — holding the top spot in the AAC. But the defensive line is more than just a pass rush as its members often suffocate the run at the line of scrimmage. The Green Wave boast the 10th best run defense in the country, surrendering 84 yards per game (on a 2.6 average) as Jenkins and defensive end Devean Deal lead the pack with six tackles for loss apiece.
Although shielding the pass rush is a challenge, teams typically see more success targeting the air on the Green Wave, as demonstrated by Ole Miss and UAB. Tulane allows one of the 10 highest completion percentages in the country, giving up 236 yards per game to quarterbacks. But the secondary has a knack for creating turnovers. Tulane intercepted seven passes in its first five games, led by cornerback Lance Robinson and his team-high three picks.
Memphis Tigers outlook
Memphis (4-1, 1-0 AAC) hasn’t played a conference game in four weeks, but the Tigers return to AAC action with their most important matchup of the regular season. Memphis receives the tremendous luxury of homefield advantage, battling the reigning Cotton Bowl champions in a venue where it has won 28 of its last 32, including all three matchups in 2023.
Tulane isn’t the only team trotting out an experienced star quarterback for this primetime matchup. Memphis counters with third-year starter Seth Henigan, who has been a model of accuracy in his true junior season. Henigan is completing passes at a career-best 68.6 percent, averaging 275 yards per game for the nation’s 19th-best scoring offense. Yes, limiting interceptions is essential going forward — especially in this game — has Henigan exhibits a 10-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio, but the Dallas area native is thriving more as a runner this year. That was evident when he brought Memphis back from a 17-0 deficit against Boise State where he 64 yards on the ground — his second-best mark as a Tiger.
Memphis didn’t feature a single 100-yard rusher a year ago, but the Tigers brought back the tradition of stellar running back play this year. By bringing in a 1,000-yard tailback in Blake Watson from Old Dominion, the team instantly solved its woes on the ground. Watson leads all AAC running backs with 455 yards on the season and ranks second in the conference in rushing touchdowns with six — and Memphis already had its bye week. Gaining yards on Tulane’s front isn’t easy, so the Tigers might try to establish some creativity in the run game and focus on targeting the boundaries when handing it to Watson.
Fun fact about Watson: he is one reception away from tying for the team-lead. He has 26 receptions for 233 yards this year, and the frequent screen threat is an integral part of Memphis’ 33rd-ranked passing attack. Roc Taylor and DeMeer Blankumsee are the main wide receiver options, but Henigan has spread the wealth quite evenly this season. Seven different Tigers have a receiving touchdown and not one snagged more than two.
During this 10-year run of winning seasons, Memphis established a reputation for explosive, high-octane offenses but average-at-best defenses. However, defense has been one of the strong suit of this year’s squad under second-year coordinator Matt Barnes. Memphis is 45th in scoring defense, holding opponents to 21.4 points per game — both the program’s highest rank and lowest opponent output since 2014.
The pass rush has come from all sorts of sources and no Tiger currently boasts more than 1.5 sacks on the year. But the true strength of this unit is its ability to get off the field in critical situations. Memphis ranks fourth in the FBS in third down defense, allowing opponents to convert 23.8 percent of attempts. Memphis is also sixth in fourth down defense, only surrendering two conversions in eight tries this year. Improvement in the secondary has led to these impressive metrics, as the pass defense lets up a 58 percent completion rate and 211 yards per game — improving by approximately 5 percent points and 30 yards per game from 2022.
Arkansas transfer strong safety Simeon Blair was a seamless fit in the secondary. The team captain is an omnipresent force in the secondary and responsible for 22 tackles and three pass breakups this year. Another key transfer which has paid dividends for Barnes’ unit is outside linebacker Chandler Martin. The former FCS standout at East Tennessee State reigns supreme on the roster in tackles (35) and tackles for loss (5.5), and he’ll play a major role in shutting down the Makhi Hughes-led run game.
Two 4-1 teams fighting for superiority in the conferences standings? Check. Potential New Year’s Six stakes? Check. A quarterback matchup between two potent veterans who already squared off twice and have history? Check. Friday night, national TV, ESPN slot? Check.
This Memphis vs. Tulane game has a lot going for it. And given the firepower each team possesses offensively, there may be a fair share of points in this one. Michael Pratt is more confident than ever in his deep ball, and Tulane should strike from distance on at least one occasion — possibly more — Friday night. Memphis features a more polished version of Seth Henigan and a star running back in Blake Watson who can pick apart defenses in a multitude of ways.
These offenses will trade a series of punches, and Memphis has the luxurious benefit of the game transpiring in the 901. That Friday night homefield advantage is always significant — just look at what Oklahoma State did as 12-point underdogs to Kansas State last Friday. But Tulane’s dominant front and ability to counter the run can outdo the homefield advantage, and the Green Wave can cruise to their eighth-straight victory with Pratt as the starting quarterback.
Prediction: Tulane 35, Memphis 28