Penn Stateand Memphis will meet for the first time when they line up against each other in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic this Saturday. The Nittany Lions (10-2) are playing in the third New Year's Six bowl game in four seasons under James Franklin, while Memphis (12-1) will usher in a brand new era for new head coach Ryan Silverfield. This will be quite the stage to make a head coaching debut for Silverfield.
Silverfield is making his head coaching debut for Memphis following the departure of Mike Norvell. Norvell left Memphis to take on the head coaching role at Florida State and decided to not stick around for one more game with the Tigers, a program he took over from Justin Fuente and continued to build into one of the top Group of 5 programs in the country. But just because Memphis ahs a new head coach doesn’t mean the Tigers are going to change their stripes right away.
Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic: Memphis (12-1) vs. Penn State (10-2)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 28 at 12 p.m. ET
Where: AT&T Stadium (Arlington, Texas)
Spread: Penn State -7
When Memphis Has the Ball
Memphis will bring a top-10 offense to the biggest bowl game in program history, which makes for quite an intriguing matchup. The Tigers have spent all season racking up yardage and points with 480.7 yards and 40.5 points per game. Memphis is one of eight teams averaging at least 40 points per game this season, with fellow AAC foes UCF and SMU the only two other non-power conference programs to have such scoring averages.
Memphis starts things on offense with quarterback Brady White, who has passed for 3,560 yards and 33 touchdowns this season. White has been intercepted just nine times, but he has thrown an interception in each of the last four games Memphis has played. White’s passing accuracy has also trended in the wrong direction in the last few games of the season. Having some time off may benefit White and the entire passing game as the Tigers look to strike early and often against a Penn State defense that has leaked some oil at the beginning of a few games in the last month of the season. Penn State gave up long touchdown drives on their first two series to start games against Minnesota and Indiana, and Ohio State also worked over Penn State’s defense to start the games. If Memphis is going to put up a solid fight, getting off to a good start may be essential.
White has some good targets to look for in the field with Damonte Coxie (1,144 yards and nine touchdowns) and Antonio Gibson (636, 8). The receiving combo of Coxie and Gibson may be the best duo Penn State has seen this season.
Penn State’s strength this season has been stopping the run, but Memphis has had a breakout star running the ball with freshman Kenneth Gainwell (1,425 yards and 12 touchdowns). Getting Gainwell going will be difficult against a stacked Penn State defensive line that features Yetur Gross-Matos, who is heading off to the NFL after one final game with the Nittany Lions. Sophomore linebacker Micah Parsons, who was named the Big Ten’s Linebacker of the Year and earned first-team All-American status this year, will be involved in nearly every play on the ground as well.
Penn State’s defense will be the best Memphis has seen this season, but the Nittany Lions have been vulnerable through the air. That needs to be where Memphis thrives.
When Penn State Has the Ball
Penn State's offense has had its ups and downs this season and will be in an interesting position this bowl season with a change at offensive coordinator thrown in the mix. Ricky Rahne has left Penn State to take on the head coaching duties at Old Dominion, leaving tight ends coach Tyler Bowen to take on the role of interim offensive coordinator for James Franklin. This may not impact the execution or preparation of the offense too much given the extra time to have everything mapped out, but do not be surprised if Bowen throws in a new wrinkle or two when the appropriate time comes up.
The biggest question for Penn State’s offense is at the quarterback position. Sean Clifford left the Ohio State game in the second half after getting roughed up and taking a bit of a toll over the month leading up to the game in Columbus, and Will Levis handled the offense in the regular-season finale against Rutgers. Clifford appears to be back and ready to go for the bowl game, which should be good for Penn State. Clifford has a big arm that allows speedy receiver KJ Hamler to get behind the defense at times for some big plays down the field. Hamler is Penn State’s big-play threat with his speed, and he doesn’t need to get deep down the field to make things happen. In the blink of an eye, Hamler can take off and if he finds just a crack in the defense, he could slip through it and race his way for the end zone. Memphis will have to be careful of short passes to Hamler given the threat he is.
Memphis will also have their hands full trying to contain Penn State’s most reliable receiver, tight end Pat Freiermuth. One of the Big Ten’s top players at the position is a big target, especially in the end zone. Nick Bowers also becomes a solid red-zone threat at the tight end spot as Penn State continues to develop some good tight ends.
Penn State also hopes to create an advantage on the ground with a versatile running game with multiple options. Journey Brown has emerged as the leading rusher for the Nittany Lions with 6.09 yards per rushing attempt and 10 touchdowns. Noah Cain could be ready to come back to the mix after some promising performances this season, and Devyn Ford and Ricky Slade are all capable of contributing in different ways too. Whoever is running the football, including Clifford, Penn State should be able to do some damage on the ground.
Memphis is a dangerous team for Penn State, and the Nittany Lions may not be able to afford another slow start on defense. Memphis may actually prefer to get into a shootout with the Nittany Lions, but Penn State's defense should be more than ready to take care of their assignments. Penn State's defense is the only one to slow down Ohio State enough to push the Buckeyes into the fourth quarter, so the Nittany Lions should have the strength and ability to keep Memphis in line for four quarters. The Tigers are too potent on offense to be dominated, so it will be up to Penn State to keep control of the clock with the running game and efficient passing from Clifford. The Nittany Lions will get enough of that with passes to Freiermuth but will have to get a few plays out of some of the supporting cast of receivers to keep Memphis at a distance.
When all is said and done, Penn State will return home with its first Cotton Bowl victory since the 1974 season.
Prediction: Penn State 34, Memphis 20
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Patreon, on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.