The AAC West Division is on the line when the Cougars and Tigers square off in Memphis on Black Friday
One way or the other, the American Athletic Conference West Division will be determined Friday when Houston and Memphis meet. The winner of this game takes the West and will get a shot at UCF in the AAC Championship Game on Dec. 1.
Houston (8-3, 5-2 AAC) currently sits atop its six-team division and travels to Memphis on the heels of a 48-17 win against Tulane. Last week’s win snapped a two-game Houston losing streak, but the Cougars didn’t emerge unscathed. Talented quarterback D’Eriq King exited the game in the second quarter with a knee injury and Houston later announced he would miss the rest of the season with a torn meniscus.
Memphis (7-4, 4-3) has ridden a three-game winning streak into West contention and has the luxury of attempting to clinch the division in front of a home crowd. The Tigers are 5-1 in home games this season. Since an Oct. 13 loss to UCF, the Tigers have defeated East Carolina, Tulsa, and most recently, SMU.
The Houston-Memphis rivalry dates back to 1963. The Cougars hold a 15-11 series advantage, but contests between the two programs in recent history have been decided by a razor-thin margin. Memphis slipped past Houston 42-38 last season, and in 2016, the Tigers won 48-44. Houston earned a 35-34 win in 2015.
Houston at Memphis
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 23 at 12 p.m.
Spread: Memphis -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Houston’s expected QB Clayton Tune
D'Eriq King’s injury couldn’t have happened at a worse time for Houston. The electric quarterback has thrown for an FBS-best 36 touchdowns and rushed for another 14. He’s accounted for 3,656 yards this season.
With King unavailable, Houston is expected to start Tune. The Texas native went 12 of 23 for 186 yards and two touchdowns in his Sept. 22 start against FCS opponent Texas Southern. He’s thrown for 309 yards, four touchdowns and an interception in three games this season.
Tune played sparingly in Houston’s Oct. 13 win against East Carolina, and he completed six of 15 passes for 108 yards with two touchdowns and one interception last week after King’s injury. The freshman will play in the biggest game of his brief career Friday.
2. Memphis’ rushing attack
With 2,910 yards on the ground this year, the Tigers boast FBS’s sixth-best rushing offense. Memphis averages 264.5 rushing yards per game and has scored 36 rushing touchdowns.
Darrell Henderson leads a talented Memphis backfield. The Doak Walker Award finalist has accumulated 17 touchdowns and he’s second in the nation in rushing yards (1,521). Henderson has two 200-yard games and four 100-yard games to his name this year.
Henderson’s backfield mate Patrick Taylor Jr. tallied a team-high 112 yards and two touchdowns in last week’s win. Taylor has eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark three times this season, and he’s accumulated 766 yards and 12 touchdowns.
3. Ed Oliver’s return?
Oliver practiced Monday and, according to ESPN.com, is primed to return to the Cougars’ defensive line for Friday's game. Oliver injured his knee in his team’s Oct. 20 game against Navy and hasn’t played since. Oliver, a defensive tackle, has produced 51 total tackles (13.5 for a loss), three sacks and one forced fumble in seven games this season.
Oliver, the 2017 Outland Trophy winner, announced before the start of the season he will depart Houston after the season. Barring a catastrophe, he will be selected early in the NFL draft. Oliver’s return to Houston’s lineup could definitely pose problems for Memphis’ running game and quarterback Brady White. He’s an elite talent when healthy and on the field.
Given the recent history between Houston and Memphis, anything less than a nail-biting finish would be a surprise. Memphis has surged since its loss to UCF, and a win Friday would set up a rematch between the two teams in the AAC Championship Game. Memphis boasts the AAC’s third-best scoring offense (43.1 ppg) and fifth-best overall defense (397.5 ypg).
Houston (47.8 ppg) has used its high-powered offense to overwhelm its opponents all season, and a key cog in that offense has been quarterback D'Eriq King. His absence drastically changes Houston’s offensive identity. Should Clayton Tune get the start, will be charged with a difficult road task. Ed Oliver’s potential return bodes well for Houston’s chances, but King’s absence will be too much for the Cougars to overcome.
Prediction: Memphis 33, Houston 28
— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A sports reporter for The Meridian Star, Hayes also has been an invited guest on "The Paul Finebaum Show." Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.
(Top photo by Joe Murphy/University of Memphis)