Arkansas State makes the short trip east to take on Memphis in an intriguing showdown for Week 1 of the 2020 college football season. These two teams combined to average more than 70 points a game last fall, so the scoreboard operator could be busy in the Liberty Bowl on Saturday night. The Tigers are projected to finish near the top of the AAC, while the Red Wolves rank in the second tier of the Sun Belt behind Appalachian State and Louisiana. Considering the offensive firepower and quality of both teams, it wouldn't be a surprise if this matchup ends Week 1 as the most entertaining game on the slate.
Memphis returns the bulk of the depth chart from a team that won the American Athletic Conference and earned a trip to the Cotton Bowl last fall. The Tigers picked up key victories against Cincinnati (twice), Ole Miss, SMU and Navy to lead the team to a 12-2 final mark. A high-powered offense led by quarterback Brady White and running back Kenneth Gainwell played a huge role in the team’s success, while the defense held teams to 26.4 points a contest. The 12-win season propelled coach Mike Norvell to the top spot at Florida State, and Memphis promoted from within, giving assistant Ryan Silverfield a chance to run the program. Silverfield lost his debut in the Cotton Bowl, but the Tigers had a strong showing in Arlington.
Success is nothing new to Arkansas State. Coach Blake Anderson has guided the Red Wolves to six consecutive bowl games and at least eight victories in four out of the last five years. Arkansas State enters 2020 a step behind Louisiana and Appalachian State in the top tier in the Sun Belt, but there’s no shortage of intrigue for this team. Anderson has two proven quarterbacks – Logan Bonner and Layne Hatcher – and receiver Jonathan Adams is one of the best in the Sun Belt.
This is the first meeting between these two schools since 2013. Memphis defeated Arkansas State 31-7 in that game. The Tigers also own a 29-24-5 series edge over the Red Wolves.
Arkansas State at Memphis
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 5 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Memphis -19
When Arkansas State Has the Ball
Some teams have trouble finding one quarterback they feel comfortable with, but that’s not the case at Arkansas State. Instead, Anderson and offensive coordinator Keith Heckendorf have two quarterbacks they can win with. Logan Bonner was red hot to start 2019 but suffered a season-ending thumb injury in the fourth game. Prior to the injury, Bonner threw for 1,052 yards and 10 touchdowns to just one pick. Layne Hatcher picked up where Bonner left off and ended 2019 with 2,946 yards and 27 touchdowns to 10 picks. Hatcher edged Bonner in yards per attempt (9.5 to 6.9) and completion percentage (65.8 to 59.5). Anderson indicated in media availability leading up to the game Bonner would start on Saturday, but Hatcher was likely to play.
The supporting cast is in great shape for whichever quarterback is piloting the offense. Running back Marcel Murray (820 yards and six touchdowns) anchors the ground attack, and all five starters are back up front. The offensive line surrendered 40 sacks last fall, so there’s room to improve along an experienced front. Omar Bayless ranked among college football’s top receivers last season, catching 93 passes for 1,653 yards and 17 touchdowns. Bayless expired his eligibility, but the cupboard isn’t empty for Bonner or Hatcher on the outside. Senior Jonathan Adams (62 catches for 851 yards) is primed for a monster year as the No. 1 target, while Dahu Green, Brandon Bowling, Bubba Ogbebor and Texas A&M transfer Rashauud Paul are additional options.
Memphis took a step forward on defense last season, holding teams to 5.4 yards a play – down from 5.6 in 2018. Additionally, this unit allowed 26.4 points a contest – down from 31.9. New play-caller (and former Colorado coach) Mike MacIntyre should continue to build on that progress. Seven starters are back this season, with the Tigers possessing one of the top defensive fronts in the AAC, and cornerback T.J. Carter returns from injury to bolster the secondary. Considering Arkansas State’s sacks allowed last season, linemen O’Bryan Goodson and Joseph Dorceus could create their share of havoc on Saturday night. Memphis allowed 42 plays of 30-plus yards last season, and with Hatcher/Bonner capable of hitting big plays in the passing game, containing those explosive plays into small gains is crucial for MacIntyre’s group.
When Memphis Has the Ball
Memphis will have a new play-caller with Mike Norvell leaving to be the head coach at Florida State. However, neither the overall offensive approach nor scheme is going to change too much, as new play-caller Kevin Johns worked with the team over the last year and held the offensive/co-offensive coordinator title at Indiana (2011-14), Western Michigan (2018), and Texas Tech (2018). The Tigers were prolific on this side of the ball last season, averaging 40.4 points a contest and 6.85 yards a snap. This group also generated 48 plays of 30 yards or more.
The catalyst for the Memphis offense over the last two years has been senior quarterback Brady White. The Arizona State transfer led all FBS quarterbacks with 26 completions of 40 yards or more last season. Additionally, White started all 14 games for the Tigers and connected on 64 percent of his throws for 4,014 yards and 33 touchdowns to just 11 picks. White has a strong offensive line leading the way up front, and go-to receiver Damonte Coxie (76 catches for 1,276 yards and nine scores) is back for 2020.
For the most part, the offense looks a lot like the 2019 version. However, running back Kenneth Gainwell decided to opt out of the season in late August. Gainwell averaged 147.8 total yards a game last year and was one of the top running backs in college football for 2020. Gainwell will be missed, but the cupboard isn’t bare at running back for Silverfield and Johns. Kylan Watkins (325 yards), Rodrigues Clark (85 yards), and Auburn transfer Asa Martin form a capable trio for the offense to deploy.
Containing the Memphis offense is going to be a big-time challenge for Arkansas State. Last year’s defense gave up 34.2 points a game and 6.1 yards a play. Also, the Red Wolves ranked near the bottom of big plays allowed and finished seventh in the Sun Belt in rush defense. Just three starters are back for 2020, but coordinator David Duggan will benefit from a healthy Forrest Merrill in the trenches, and Fresno State transfer Justin Rice should add instant help to the linebacker unit. Getting three-and-outs and holding Memphis in check is probably an unrealistic expectation for Arkansas State. However, this group has to find a way to limit big plays and create a couple of takeaways to help pull off the upset.
Both offenses are capable of putting up points in a hurry. While early-season rust is a concern with the unusual offseason, it’s hard to envision both offenses sputtering for all four quarters. Even without Gainwell, Memphis won’t have trouble moving the ball against Arkansas State’s defense with White and Coxie connecting frequently through the air. The Red Wolves will also have their share of success in moving the ball, but Memphis is likely to provide more resistance on defense. Can Arkansas State generate enough takeaways to keep pace? Expect some offensive fireworks here, but the Tigers have an edge on defense, and White’s steady play will be more than enough to lead Silverfield to a win in his home debut.
Prediction: Memphis 41, Arkansas State 27
(Top photo courtesy of Memphis Athletics)