- Time and date: Saturday, October 28 at 3:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN+
- Location: DATCU Stadium — Denton, TX
- Spread: Memphis (-7)
- Over/under: 67.5
- All-time series: Memphis leads, 17-4
- Last meeting: Memphis 44, North Texas 34 — September 24, 2022
- Current streak: Memphis, 2 (2003-22)
Setting the scene
For the first time as AAC members, Memphis and North Texas converge on the gridiron. This matchup transpired last season in non-conference form where the Tigers comfortably cruised to a double-digit victory in Memphis, and now the Mean Green are plotting their revenge.
Memphis (5-2, 2-1 AAC) looks every part of an AAC championship contender at the moment. The Tigers’ lone defeat came at the hands of a ranked Tulane team, and Memphis held a 21-10 advantage in the second half before turnovers and defensive breakdowns prevent a statement victory. In all likelihood, Memphis controls its own destiny for the conference championship (not playing UTSA complicates things, but the team with the higher CFP ranking would qualify), and a win over North Texas sustains that journey.
North Texas (3-4, 1-2 AAC) isn’t a team you can judge by its record. The Mean Green of the past two weeks look like a different team than the one that yielded 58 points to Cal and fell in shootout fashion to FIU. The defense is vastly improved while the offense remains lethal. North Texas erased a 21-0 halftime deficit last week at Tulane to tie the game at 28-28 in the fourth quarter, but the Green Wave strung together a game-winning drive to remain ranked. The week prior, North Texas separated itself from the cellar of the conference with a 45-14 win over Temple, so things are looking up in year one of the Eric Morris era.
Memphis Tigers outlook
In six games against FBS competition this year, Memphis has four wins over sub-.500 teams and two losses to currently-ranked opponents. The Tigers haven’t played much in between, but regardless of the opponent, the games usually take on a close and competitive nature. But Memphis finally earned a dominant conference win by throttling UAB 45-21 by outscoring the Blazers 24-0 in the second half.
The Tigers were significantly boosted by the turnover battle in that contest, pounding UAB 4-0 in that critical department. Taking care of the ball was a welcome sight after multiple interceptions plagued Memphis in both losses this year. But the stellar coverage which contributed to three defensive interceptions was an even more welcome sight.
Memphis’ defensive back play is one reason the Tigers fit the mold of AAC contenders. The team rose from 89th in passing defense to 49th, yielding just 212 yards per game on a 58 percent completion rate. Arkansas transfer Simeon Blair was a vital addition to a unit in need of a leader, and the team captain ranks third on the team in tackles, has broken up three passes, and returned an interception 41 yards last Saturday. Given North Texas’ prowess through the air, it’s going to be a busy day for Blair and the Memphis secondary. Free safety Greg Rubin, who ranked top five nationally in pass deflections, remains questionable after missing the prior week, so the Tigers may have to rely on additional depth for coverage purposes.
The Tigers are a middle-of-the-road pass rush and Matt Barnes’ defense sends blitzes from all over the field. Twelve different players have a share of a sack this year, but nobody has more than two. If there’s one area Memphis seeks improvement in defensively, it’s coming off blocks up front. The Tigers will need to amplify their run defense against North Texas and the name to watch in this department is FCS transfer linebacker Chandler Martin, who serves as Memphis’ leading tackler.
Offensively, it’s no secret Seth Henigan is the head of the snake. The third-year starting quarterback is completing passes at a career-high rate, as expected, but conversely, interceptions have been more common than in frequent years. But Memphis hasn’t utilized Henigan nearly as much in wins as losses, strongly favoring its improved run game until facing serious adversity. In FBS wins, he averages 221 yards on 30 attempts, but in losses, those averages balloon to 319 yards on 39 attempts.
Memphis didn’t have the luxury of a reliable run game last year, but that changed when bringing in Blake Watson from the transfer portal. The former Old Dominion star is second in the AAC in rushing at 593 yards on the year, picking up a respectable 5.8 yards per attempt. Each of the Tigers’ last three victories featured over 110 yards and at least one touchdown from Watson, and getting him going will be the focal point against the nation’s worst run defense.
Watson is also frequented in the receiving game as second on the roster with 29 receptions. Only Roc Taylor has corralled more Henigan darts this year, securing 38 balls for 556 yards. Taylor and DeMeer Blankumsee are the premier downfield options while Watson is a common checkdown option to pick up chunks of yards against drop-eight defenses.
North Texas Mean Green outlook
There are no moral victories in college football and North Texas fell below .500 with a 35-28 defeat at Tulane last weekend. But it’s hard not to be inspired by what this North Texas team is becoming, shedding a 21-0 deficit and forcing the game to be decided in the final minutes. After fielding the nation’s worst scoring defense through a third of the season, the Mean Green are making vast improvements in that category, and now Eric Morris’ team is taking on a new form.
Yes, North Texas still owns the unwanted title of the worst run defense in the FBS, allowing 255 yards per game — more than 27 yards of separation from 132nd-ranked Georgia Tech. But the Mean Green are sharp at defending the air, and that’s not just because opponents are running down their throat. They force a 57.4 completion percentage and only allow 203 yards per contest on 28 attempts.
Ridge Texada is the star of the secondary with First Team All-CUSA pedigree, tying for the team-lead in pass breakups this year. It’s common for offenses to gameplan throwing away from the junior cornerback, who plays much bigger than his 5’8” frame. Texada isn’t the only former First Team All-CUSA selection on the defense. Mazin Richards occupies the edge rusher spot, and North Texas will rely on him to disrupt Henigan and force a few interceptions. The Mean Green push is currently tied for worst in the AAC, producing just nine sacks through seven games, so Richards re-emerging to 2022 form could be a game-changer for this defense.
The other side of the pass rush war hasn’t been kind to North Texas either, as the Mean Green surrender 2.7 sacks per game — highlighted by allowing eight to Navy. But North Texas’ offensive line showed tremendous resolve against a dominant Tulane front last week and only allowed the Green Wave to get to quarterback Chandler Rogers once. This allowed Rogers to nearly stage a three-touchdown comeback.
Rogers is becoming a star for the Mean Green. In his last six games, the quarterback has delivered 14 touchdowns and zero interceptions — and the zero interceptions have been on high volume. In five starts this season, Rogers averages 39.6 passes per game and he’s been highly efficient with those reps, completing at least 60 percent of passes in six consecutive outings. The result is four 300-yard games including a season-high 343 yards against Tulane.
North Texas’ receivers have greatly benefited from Rogers’ presence at quarterback. Especially Ja’Mori Maclin, who doubles as the AAC leader in receiving yards (658) and touchdowns (9). Guarding Maclin in solo coverage on an island is dangerous as the receiver typically burns cornerbacks with track star-like speed. His 19.9 yards per reception rank third among all FBS receivers with at least 30 catches on the season.
The Mean Green don’t limit their skill position success to quarterback and receiver. The 22nd best passing offense in the country is also 38th in rushing. North Texas abandoned the ground game somewhat against Tulane, which is one of the elite run-stopping units in the land, but the Mean Green typically trot out a stable of running backs with an overall versatile skillset. Ayo Adeyi is the leader of the pack with 507 yards on a breathtaking 7.1 per carry, and he’ll be supported by the likes of Oscar Adaway and Isaiah Johnson.
When Memphis is involved, you can always expect a competitive game. Four of the past five Tigers’ contests have been decided by 10 or fewer points with competitive fourth quarters. This one will be added to the list.
North Texas’ offense attacks incredibly well in both facets, and this team is a danger to any AAC contender if the defense remains this sharp — just ask Tulane. Memphis will pile on points offensively, but it cannot afford the defensive first half it had last week against UAB. Also, this defense is pitted against a quarterback who regularly refrains from interceptions and the Tigers mainly got their separation last week due to picking off three passes.
With Chandler Rogers leading the way through the air and the stable of backs earning tough yardage on the ground, Mean Green offense shines in multidimensional fashion throughout the day and pulls off a stunner in Denton, TX.
Prediction: North Texas 35, Memphis 32