- Time and date: Saturday, November 4 at 3:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN+
- Location: Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium — Memphis, TN
- Spread: Memphis (-13)
- Over/under: 67.5
- All-time series: Memphis leads, 7-4
- Last meeting: Memphis 34, South Florida 33 — November 7, 2020
- Current streak: Memphis, 2 (2019-20)
Setting the scene
Memphis (6-2, 3-1 AAC) remains a contender in what appears to be a 4-team AAC race. The Tigers’ only losses were relatively close contests against currently ranked Missouri and Tulane teams. Otherwise, Ryan Silverfield’s team has passed every test — even last week’s bizarre game at North Texas. Memphis held a commanding 31-7 second quarter lead but the defense unraveled in the third quarter, allowing North Texas to snatch a 42-38 advantage with 47 seconds remaining. But rather than panic, the Tigers responded in warp speed. Seth Henigan led a rapid 75-yard drive in 35 seconds, finishing with a 36-yard pass to Joe Scates in the end zone with 12 ticks remaining.
South Florida (4-4, 2-2 AAC) is fresh off a bye week after an up-and-down season. The Bulls played at their highest level in years from Weeks 3 to 5 where they made life difficult for Alabama and followed that performance with convincing wins over Rice and Navy. The offense has significantly stalled since then, but South Florida reappeared in the win column last time out by erasing a 21-10 fourth quarter deficit to UConn to win 24-21. Since sharing the AAC, this series has overwhelmingly favored the Tigers, which upended the Bulls in four of the last five meetings. South Florida craves a signature win on the road which could lift them to the doorstep of bowl eligibility — something the program hasn’t attained since 2018.
South Florida Bulls outlook
With four wins on the year, South Florida already tied its winningest campaign since the 2018 season. The Bulls are led by first-year head coach Alex Golesh who has implemented a similar system to what made him an enticing candidate from his days as the Tennessee offensive coordinator.
South Florida attacks with some of the most impressive tempo in the nation, taking minimal time between snaps. As a result, the Bulls rank first nationally in plays run per game, taking an average of 84 snaps against FBS competition. Golesh has the personnel to run an up-tempo offense as well, led by dynamic dual-threat quarterback Byrum Brown. He is a quick decision-maker who possesses a dazzling degree of agility. With 573 rushing yards on the year, he ranks fourth among FBS quarterbacks. But his rank would be significantly higher if sacks didn’t factor into the rushing equation.
The Bulls’ greatest weakness is pass protection. Brown is a wizard at making defenders miss with his fleet-footed moves, but the redshirt freshman quarterback still absorbs a slew of sacks. South Florida is bottom 10 in the FBS and last in the AAC in sacks yielded per contest at 4.0, and this issue must be corrected in order for the offense to have another resurgence.
South Florida is close to an elite rushing team, thanks to the presence of Brown and running back Nay’Quan Wright, who has 292 rushing yards and three touchdowns in his last two outings — on 7.1 yards per carry. But the Bulls remain multidimensional with a functional passing game as well and that was the difference in their two conference wins. When Brown fires for 300 yards, South Florida is undefeated this year and both of those games (Navy and Rice) featured interception-free performances from the leader of the offense. Sean Atkins and Naiem Simmons are Brown’s go-tos at the receiver position which will battle a Memphis secondary that allowed 411 passing yards and five touchdowns to North Texas last Saturday.
On defense, this team is difficult to comprehend. South Florida made its mark as a defensive force early on in the season when stifling Alabama to 17 points — surrendering just three in the first half, thanks to loads of pressure from all sources of the unit. But the Bulls have wildly fluctuated throughout the season, yielding 56 points to UAB and 56 points again to Florida Atlantic. After generating five sacks on Alabama and four on Rice, South Florida has only collected four combined sacks in its last four outings.
Nickel blitzes were a significant reason for those high sack outputs in late September and that effort was spearheaded by DaQuan Evans. Evans is one of the most versatile forces on the team, ranking first on South Florida with 10 tackles for loss from the secondary while wielding three sacks on the year. He doubles as the team leader in pass breakups as well, demonstrating his ability to thrive as a blitzer and coverage specialist.
Memphis has lost both games as a result of interceptions, and that’s one element South Florida needs to add to its defensive arsenal. The Bulls have picked off just six passes on the year, and they’ll need counters to Seth Henigan and the high-powered Tiger offense. One potential solution is strong safety Logan Berryhill, who has two interceptions and 37 tackles in a breakout 2023.
Memphis Tigers outlook
Memphis appeared to be on track for a blowout in Denton, TX after establishing a 31-7 advantage on North Texas. But a theme Tiger faithful know all too well suddenly transpired and nearly kept Memphis from attaining its sixth win. Memphis squandered 21-0 and 17-0 leads in back-to-back weeks in 2021 and lost a game last year where it led by 16 with eight minutes to go. Although the Tigers coughed up their 24-point cushion, they snatched it back instantly to claim bowl eligibility for the 10th consecutive season.
The poise of third-year starter Seth Henigan is one reason Memphis remains in the AAC contention picture. Henigan was instantly productive as a true freshman in 2021, but he’s refined his game even more the past two seasons. His completion percentage of 67.5 is a career high and he’s remained efficient on high volume performances — totaling 300+ yards in half of his starts this year. Last Saturday was one of Henigan’s signature performances, dishing out 330 yards on 22-of-28 passing, garnished by the game-winning touchdown strike with 12 seconds remaining.
Memphis didn’t get major contributions from its skill positions last year, and that’s perhaps the biggest difference between last year’s 7-6 team and this year’s 6-2 squad. Henigan has plenty of options at receiver, headlined by Roc Taylor who took a massive offseason leap to lead the team in receptions (42) and yards (593). Toledo transfer DeMeer Blankumsee is a productive No. 2 with three 80+ yard showings in his last four games. Even running back Blake Watson is heavily involved with the aerial attack, securing 34 receptions (second on the team) for 348 yards.
But Memphis doesn’t need Henigan to be a superhero every game because Watson is that productive on the ground. Watson is second in the AAC in rushing yards and tied for first in rushing touchdowns, totaling 762 and nine, respectively, on the season. The Old Dominion transfer is coming off his fourth 100-yard game in his last six outings, tying a season-high with 169 yards on the Mean Green. Explosive runs are a theme for Watson, who averages over six yards per carry, and he’ll hope to sustain that against a run defense which ranks 85th nationally.
Memphis’ defense was quietly doing a solid job up until last week. North Texas was the first team to drop more than 34 points on the Tigers on a schedule which featured ranked opponents with star quarterbacks in Missouri and Tulane. Memphis allowed 411 passing yards and five touchdowns to North Texas quarterback Chandler Rogers, but the team also failed to contain the ground and the Mean Green racked up 7.5 yards per carry in the shootout.
Prior to the North Texas game, Memphis was rather stellar at generating stops. Yes, the Tigers intercept passes at a high rate, but they’re still 16th in the FBS in third down stop percentage and 13th in fourth down stop percentage. Outside linebacker Chandler Martin’s presence in the unit is a significant reason for these outstanding rankings, as the FCS transfer has team-highs with 60 tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss on the season.
Against South Florida, containing the boundaries is essential with Byrum Brown’s scrambling. This carves out a larger role for defensive end Jaylon Allen, who exhibits an athletic 6’3”, 240 pound frame and is equipped with outstanding speed for the position. Allen has 5.5 tackles for loss on the season and getting to Brown in the backfield is the formula to a victory in Memphis.
Offenses are set to shine in Memphis on Saturday.
South Florida might be the most difficult team in the AAC to get a read on because the Bulls have been excellent at their peaks but alarming at their valleys, and it’s difficult to know which version of the team is coming. But they have enough offensive firepower to counter Memphis with a high-powered run game led by the elusive Byrum Brown and running back Nay’Quan Wright, as well as a passing game that can inflict damage. Memphis struggled against a multidimensional offense a week ago against North Texas, and lately, the Tigers have required turnovers in order to generate stops on defense.
Memphis may not win this game with its defense, but it certainly can offensively. Blake Watson is an explosive option out of the backfield which should help the Tigers string together long drives, and Seth Henigan is playing some of his best football out of the pocket. South Florida features the sixth-worst pass defense in the FBS, and Henigan should be ready to feast in a high-scoring affair Saturday.
Prediction: Memphis 38, South Florida 31