Memphis and Wake Forest will look to finish the season on a high note in the Birmingham Bowl. The Tigers (8-5, 5-3 AAC) are coming off of a loss in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game to UCF in which they let a 17-point lead slip away. The Demon Deacons (6-6, 3-5 ACC) pulled off road upsets at NC State and Duke down the stretch to become bowl eligible, although there was a home loss to Pittsburgh in between.
After topping Texas A&M in last season’s Belk Bowl, Wake Forest will look for its third straight postseason victory under head coach Dave Clawson. That’s something that has never before happened in program history. Memphis also is three-for-three under head coach Mike Norvell in getting to a bowl, but it has yet to win. Last year, the Tigers fell 21-20 to Iowa State in the Liberty Bowl, which is played in their home stadium.
This will be the fifth meeting between the two schools, but the first since 1967. Memphis and Wake Forest played each other from 1964-67 with the teams splitting the four games.
Jared Birmingham Bowl: Memphis (8-5) vs. Wake Forest (6-6)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 22 at 12 p.m. ET
Where: Legion Field (Birmingham, Ala.)
Spread: Memphis -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Jamie Newman
After it looked like Wake Forest may flounder down the stretch, the Demon Deacons finished strong by winning three of their final five games with each of those coming on the road. They got a spark from an expected source, quarterback Jamie Newman, who took over as the starter after Sam Hartman suffered a season-ending injury in the Nov. 3 loss to Syracuse.
In first career start against then-No. 14 NC State, Newman threw a 32-yard touchdown pass to stun the Wolfpack on the road. He finished the game with 297 passing yards and three scores. Then, two games later he tossed four touchdown passes in the 59-7 rout of Duke in Durham to get that all-important sixth win. On Saturday, Newman will be facing a Memphis defense that was picked apart in the second half of the AAC Championship Game by UCF's Darriel Mack Jr., who was only playing because of an injury to McKenzie Milton. Will Newman be the next dual-threat signal-caller to have success against Memphis' defense?
2. Memphis ground attack vs. Wake rush defense
With Darrell Henderson electing not to play in the Birmingham Bowl, the Memphis offense will rely heavily on Patrick Taylor Jr. Taylor played well in the AAC Championship Game, finishing with 118 rushing yards and a touchdown on 15 carries in addition to four receptions for 23 yards. Expect Taylor to get a lot of touches to take some pressure off quarterback Brady White. White has had a good season but has feasted largely on suspect competition. Expect running back Tony Pollard to get more touches as well.
The Tigers will be facing a Wake Forest defense that has not been particularly strong against the run, yielding more than 191 rushing yards per game. But the Demon Deacons did improve in this area as the season went on. Last time out, Wake Forest held Duke to just 3.1 yards per carry. Against NC State on Nov. 10, the Wolfpack managed just 47 rushing yards on 27 carries (1.7 ypc). Defensive back Cameron Glenn and linebacker Justin Strnad lead the Wake defense and are among the top 10 tacklers in the ACC.
3. Non-offensive touchdowns
Defensive and special teams scores in bowl games have seemed to have historically been a theme and both Wake Forest and Memphis have had their fair share this season. The Demon Deacons have scored seven non-offensive touchdowns this season with two coming on Greg Dortch punt returns, one on a blocked punt and four courtesy of the defense. Memphis has a pair of non-offensive scores this season, but the Tigers have allowed opponents to score three non-offensive touchdowns.
Wake Forest has not given up a defensive score this season. In last year’s 55-52 Belk Bowl win over Texas A&M, the Demon Deacons were both the beneficiary and victims of a non-offensive touchdown.
Darrell Henderson’s absence could be a major factor for Memphis against a Wake Forest defense that has gotten better as the season has gone on. The Demon Deacons will certainly look to force quarterback Brady White to try to win the game, while Wake Forest has been energized by Jamie Newman's emergence at quarterback following Sam Hartman's injury. Newman and company closed out the season on a high note by blowing out Duke in Durham. It remains to be seen how motivated Memphis will be after blowing a three-score lead against UCF in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game. The Tigers also haven't won a bowl game since 2014 (0-3).