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2023 AutoZone Liberty Bowl Preview: Memphis Tigers vs. Iowa State Cyclones

It’s almost an exact replica of the 2017 Liberty Bowl. Same teams. Same venue. Similar records.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 30 AutoZone Liberty Bowl - Memphis v Iowa State Photo by Austin McAfee/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Game notes

  • Time and date: Friday, December 29 at 3:30 p.m. ET
  • Network: ESPN
  • Location: Fenway Park — Boston, MA
  • Spread: Iowa State (-10.5)
  • Over/under: 57.5
  • All-time series: Iowa State leads, 1-0
  • Last meeting: Iowa State 21, Memphis 20 — December 30, 2017 (Liberty Bowl)
  • Current streak: Iowa State, 1 (2017)
  • Memphis last bowl: 2022 First Responder Bowl, 38-10 win over Utah State
  • Iowa State last bowl: 2021 Cheez-It Bowl Bowl, 20-13 loss to Clemson
  • 2022 Liberty Bowl matchup: Louisville 24, Cincinnati 7

Setting the scene

Have we taken a time capsule back to 2017?

Iowa State and Memphis share only one meeting in history — the 2017 AutoZone Liberty Bowl. Six years later, the Cyclones and Tigers meet again. Same bowl game. Same sponsor. Same conferences. Same venue, which happens to be Memphis’ home stadium. And very similar records too, as Iowa State entered both matchups at 7-5, while Memphis was 10-2 in 2017 and 9-3 this season.

Matt Campbell served as Iowa State’s head coach for both, and Ryan Silverfield was on Memphis’ staff for both, although he was an assistant in 2017 before receiving the promotion to head coach in 2020.

In the 2017 Liberty Bowl, Iowa State emerged 21-20 in a back-and-forth defensive oriented game which featured zero fourth quarter points. Allen Lazard won MVP honors for the Cyclones for 10-reception, 142-yard, 1-touchdown day against the Tiger secondary.

Now, we have one thing left to determine. Does the same team claim the Liberty Bowl trophy in Memphis on Friday, or do we avoid another déjà vu moment?

Memphis Tigers outlook

Memphis (9-3, 6-2 AAC) flew quietly under the radar all season. The Tigers lost three games to currently AP ranked opponents and played respectably in all three contests — falling to the likes of Missouri (by 7), Tulane (by 10), and SMU (by 4). Ryan Silverfield’s team handled business otherwise, knocking off eventual Mountain West champion Boise State in non-conference play as its signature victory.

Now the Tigers seek their first Big 12 victory since eviscerating Kansas in 2016, looking to defend home turf. It’s only Memphis’ second appearance in the longstanding bowl which first launched in 1959, but the Tigers have the backing of their home crowd, attempting to manifest the team’s third consecutive bowl win under Silverfield.

NCAA Football: Tulane at Memphis
Memphis QB Seth Henigan aims for his second bowl win after leading the Tigers to a 38-10 First Responder Bowl victory over Utah State in 2022.
Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

In typical Memphis fashion, the strength of the Tigers is the offense. For the fourth time since 2017, Memphis features a top 10 scoring offense, checking in at seventh with 39.7 points per game. The Tigers racked up at least 44 points in six of their 12 regular season games and posted an 8-0 record when scoring at least 35. However, falling below that threshold produced undesirable results, finishing 1-3 when failing to reach that 35-point barrier.

Quarterback Seth Henigan is closing his true junior campaign, and the quarterback simply gets better with each passing season. Henigan looked more comfortable in the pocket than ever this year, completing a career-high 66.5 percent of passes with over 3,500 yards, 28 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. Although his mobility is not a key component of Memphis’ offensive strategy, he ran the ball better than ever and demonstrated good decision-making — taking far fewer sacks than his prior two years as a starter.

This year, Henigan was surrounded with a better skill position group than he had in prior years. Running back Blake Watson became the first 1,000-yard rusher in a Tiger uniform since 2019 Kenny Gainwell, and he averaged 5.9 yards per carry and totaled 14 touchdowns in an All-AAC finish. Watson also played a pivotal role as a checkdown option, tallying 50 receptions for 458 yards in one of 13 FBS passing offenses averaging more than 300 yards per game.

Other benefactors of this aerial attack include Roc Taylor, who is 19 yards away from reaching the 1,000-yard mark and Toledo transfer DeMeer Blankumsee, who ranks first in receiving touchdowns in addition to toting 825 yards.

Memphis’ defense started out strong, but had some questionable performances in the latter half of the season. The Tigers were surprisingly 2-0 when surrendering over 40 points this year, but getting in a track meet with Iowa State is not the optimal strategy for the Liberty Bowl. Memphis is 94th in scoring defense and 114th in total defense, needing improvement in those areas in order to win its first-ever Liberty Bowl.

NCAA Football: Tulane at Memphis
Memphis OLB Chandler Martin registered First Team All-AAC honors in his first year after transferring from the FCS level.
Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

There are areas where the defense executes extraordinarily well, and those are on critical downs. Memphis is top 15 in third down defense and top five in fourth down defense in terms of opponent conversion percentage, so the unit’s ability to get off the field is excellent. They also made plenty of big play interceptions and registered 205 return yards off of picks this year — led by first-year transfers Chandler Martin and Simeon Blair.

But the pass defense is 116th and the run defense is 100th in yards allowed, and teams have explosive play potential when pitted against the Tigers. With no player picking up more than 2.5 sacks in the regular season, Memphis needs a strong pass rush to prevent these explosive plays from developing. They’ll rely on their two All-AAC defenders — Martin (12 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks) and defensive end Jaylon Allen (7 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks) — to apply pressure in the backfield, while Blair is one of the leaders of the secondary with 61 tackles and two interceptions.

Iowa State Cyclones outlook

Iowa State (7-5, 6-3 Big 12) produced one of its most impressive seasons under Matt Campbell to date. The Cyclones were fresh off a 4-8 season and started non-conference play in brutal fashion, dropping games to Iowa and Ohio to stumble to a 1-2 start. But Iowa State knocked off the likes of Oklahoma State and Kansas State to secure its sixth winning season in seven years — a stretch that hasn’t been replicated since the 1920s.

The Cyclones weren’t exactly renowned for an explosive offense all year long, ranking 74th in points per game at 26.2. But what Iowa State accomplished in the regular season finale was nothing short of jarring and shows the true potential of Campbell’s squad. In an upset 42-35 win over Kansas State in the snow, Iowa State scored five touchdowns of at least 60 yards and four touchdowns of at least 70 yards in a record-setting showing for its offense with running back Abu Sama producing 276 yards and three touchdowns on 16 carries.

Iowa State v Kansas State
Iowa State RB Abu Sama III scored touchdowns of 71, 77, and 60 yards in the 42-35 win over Kansas State on Nov. 25.
Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

Sama emerged as a threat very late into the season, also earning 110 yards and two touchdowns against BYU. Iowa State hasn’t operated too long with the freshman Des Moines native as the No. 1 back, but Sama’s ability to score from anywhere on the field with his speed is something Memphis’ defense must be aware of.

But speaking on a comparison basis to other FBS teams, Iowa State is far more adept in the passing game than it is in the run. The Cyclones averaged 228 yards per contest under first-year starter Rocco Becht, who played some of his best football once the calendar flipped to November. In Becht’s most recent three starts, he completed 70.1 percent of attempts for 756 yards, seven touchdowns, and one interception. While Becht doesn’t provide too much in the mobility department, he was a star when it came to avoiding sacks, supported by an elite offensive line. Iowa State is top 10 in fewest sacks allowed at 1.0 per game, pitted against a Memphis front which didn’t produce many all year.

Other names to watch in this offense include the receiving duo of Jayden Higgins and Jaylin Noel. Both receivers accumulated more than 700 yards in the regular season, with Higgins serving as the more vertical threat while Noel proved lethal as an option in the short-yardage game. The duo captured 11 of Becht’s 20 touchdown strikes on the year, so when it comes to red zone offense, expect Higgins and Noel to be Iowa State’s first reads.

The Cyclone defense was the team’s strongest unit this year, allowing 21.7 points per game for the FBS’s 35th-best scoring defense. Iowa State showed prowess in both facets of the defense, limiting opponents to a 54.6 completion percentage (top 10 in FBS) and a 3.7 rushing average (top 40 in FBS). However, the pass defense takes a significant hit without the services of First Team All-Big 12 cornerback T.J. Tampa, who opted out of the remainder of the season. He was a shutdown corner to the extent where stats don’t do justice of his abilities simply because quarterbacks didn’t look in his direction. But the secondary is loaded with other First Team All-Big 12 talent in free safety Jeremiah Cooper, who caught five interceptions and deflected nine passes in a standout year.

Texas v Iowa State
Iowa State FS Jeremiah Cooper ranked top five in the Big 12 in both interceptions (5) and passes defended (9) in an All-Big 12 season.
Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images

Like Memphis, Iowa State didn’t field one of the better pass rushes in college football this year, but the defense found other ways to thrive at the line of scrimmage. Four different defenders racked up six or more tackles for loss, and that doesn’t even include the omnipresent strong safety Beau Freyler — who sits atop the team with 96 tackles in addition to four tackles for loss and three interceptions in a stat-line which demonstrates his versatility.


The 2017 final score of 21-20 seems too low for these Memphis and Iowa State offenses. This matchup should be filled with points, explosive plays, and a few defensive lapses.

Iowa State’s 42-35 win over Kansas State and Memphis’ 59-50 win over South Florida are just examples of track meets these offenses are capable of entangling themselves in. The Cyclones exhibit the stronger defense which is certain to limit the Tigers more than Memphis limits Iowa State.

Long gains should be a recurring theme among Abu Sama and the Iowa State receivers against a Memphis defense which ranks in the triple-digits in both defending the run and pass. Seth Henigan and the Tigers will have answers for Iowa State’s offensive success, but not enough to claim a Liberty Bowl win on their home turf.

The same team from 2017 lifts the trophy again.

Prediction: Iowa State 42, Memphis 31