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Liberty Bowl Preview and Prediction: Memphis vs. Iowa State

Riley Ferguson, Memphis Tigers Football

Riley Ferguson, Memphis Tigers Football

Memphis looks to defend its home turf in Saturday’s Liberty Bowl matchup against Iowa State. The Tigers were one of the best Group of 5 teams in 2017 and nearly knocked off UCF in the American Athletic Conference title game to earn a trip to a New Year’s Six bowl. On the other sideline, the Cyclones showed marked improvement in coach Matt Campbell’s second year in Ames. After a 3-9 record last fall, Iowa State improved to 7-5 in 2017.

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Despite this bowl taking place in its home stadium and city, Memphis has never appeared in the Liberty Bowl before the 2017 version on Saturday. In the second year under coach Mike Norvell, the Tigers started 3-0 with a win over UCLA on Sept. 16. Memphis suffered its first defeat in late September at UCF (40-13) but didn’t lose again until the AAC title game against the Knights. Leading the way for Norvell’s team is a high-powered offense. Quarterback Riley Ferguson and receiver Anthony Miller helped lead the offense to an average of 47.7 points a game and only two opponents held the Tigers under 35 points.    

Iowa State’s turnaround under coach Matt Campbell was one of the top storylines in the Big 12 this season. The Cyclones started 2-2, but the month of October was especially good to Campbell’s team. Iowa State knocked off Oklahoma 38-31 in Norman and capped the month and a four-game winning streak with a victory against TCU (14-7). The Cyclones finished the season with a 1-3 stretch but all three losses came by seven points or less. With Campbell leading the way, along with the improvement by this program in 2017, Iowa State is a team on the rise for 2018 and beyond.

Iowa State and Memphis have never met on the gridiron. This bowl usually features a SEC team taking on a program from the Big 12, but the SEC did not have enough teams eligible for a postseason bid in 2017. Big 12 teams are 0-4 in their last four appearances in the Liberty Bowl.

Liberty Bowl: Memphis (10-2) vs. Iowa State (7-5)

Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 30 at 12:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ABC

Spread: Memphis -3.5

Three Things to Watch

1. High-Powered Offense for Memphis

As mentioned above, Memphis was one of the nation’s most-prolific offenses in 2017. The Tigers ranked second nationally by averaging 47.7 points a game and fourth in yards per play (7.46). Additionally, Norvell’s offense produced its share of big plays, connecting on 28 of 40 yards or more and 11 of 60 yards or more.

The catalyst for this attack is quarterback Riley Ferguson. The senior connected on 63 percent of his throws for 3,971 yards and 36 touchdowns to only nine picks. Ferguson’s favorite target is Athlon Sports first-team All-America receiver Anthony Miller, who grabbed 92 receptions for 1,407 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2017. Miller isn’t the only weapon for Ferguson on the outside. Speedy running back Tony Pollard (34 catches), senior Phil Mayhue (30), tight end Sean Dykes (14) and receiver Damonte Coxie (19) are capable secondary targets.

While the Ferguson-to-Miller connection headlines the Memphis attack, the ground game is also a lethal component. Darrell Henderson rushed for 1,154 yards and nine touchdowns on just 130 carries this fall, with Patrick Taylor (798 yards and 13 TDs), Pollard (222 yards) and Doroland Dorecus (201) in the mix as key contributors. An underrated cog in the Tigers’ offense has been the play of the line. This unit has only allowed 15 sacks this season, with Trevon Tate and Gabe Kuhn earning a first-team spot on the American Athletic All-Conference team.

Iowa State’s defense is no stranger to high-powered offenses. After all, the Cyclones play in the Big 12 and played Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, West Virginia, TCU and Texas Tech this season. Campbell’s defense finished second in the conference by limiting opponents to 21 points a game and third in the league by giving up 5.4 yards a play. Iowa State limited opposing passing attacks to just five passes of 40 yards or more. A big reason for that success in the secondary was the play of All-Big 12 cornerback Brian Peavy and safety Kamari Cotton-Moya.

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Can Iowa State’s defense contain the high-powered attack from Memphis? Considering the weapons at running back and receiver, the Cyclones are likely to going to give up some yards. However, Iowa State can’t afford to allow too many big plays or fail to generate turnovers. In the red zone, the Cyclones have to hold Memphis to three points instead of a touchdown.

The chess match between Iowa State’s defense and Memphis’ offense will be an intriguing battle all afternoon long.

Related: Predictions for Every 2017-18 Bowl Game

2. Iowa State’s Passing Game

The Cyclones have started three different quarterbacks this season. Jacob Park started the first four games and threw for 1,181 yards and nine scores. He left the team after the fourth game, leaving Oregon State transfer Kyle Kempt to start his first contest at Oklahoma. However, Kempt delivered a memorable performance against the Sooners, completing 18 of 24 passes for 343 yards and three touchdowns in an upset win. He started the next five games but missed the Nov. 18 matchup against Baylor due to an injury. With Kempt sidelined for that contest, redshirt freshman Zeb Noland made his first career start against the Bears and threw for 180 yards and two touchdowns on 14 completions. Kempt returned to the lineup for the finale against Kansas State is on track to start the Liberty Bowl against Memphis.

Regardless of who was under center for Campbell, Iowa State’s offense has been consistent in finding ways to get the ball to the playmakers on the outside. This group of receivers is among the best in college football. Senior Allen Lazard grabbed 61 receptions for 799 yards and nine scores this year, with Hakeem Butler (36), Marchie Murdock (37) and Trever Ryan (46) rounding out the other weapons.

Memphis has experienced its share of issues against the pass this season, and the secondary will be under attack from Iowa State’s standout receivers in the Liberty Bowl. The Tigers checked in fifth in the AAC in pass efficiency defense but allowed 29 touchdowns and four plays of 50 yards or more. Will the Tigers have an answer to stop the Iowa State passing game?

Related: College Football's 2017 All-America Team

3. Memphis’ Defense Against Iowa State’s Ground Game

Considering the firepower of Memphis’ offense, Iowa State’s best defense might be its ground game. The Tigers are giving up 5.8 yards a play and finished eighth in the AAC in rush defense. Stopping the run was a challenge for Norvell’s defense, as Memphis gave up nearly 200 yards (196.8) a game and six rushes of 40 yards or more.

Iowa State running back David Montgomery ranked second in the Big 12 by rushing for 1,094 yards this season. The sophomore averaged 4.7 yards per carry and added 11 scores over 234 carries. In addition to his prowess on the ground, Montgomery caught 35 passes for 288 yards. The Cyclones have showed improvement in the trenches all year, which helped clear the way for Montgomery to rush for over 1,000 yards and limited quarterback sacks to just 16.

When Iowa State has the ball, expect to see a heavy dose of Montgomery. If Montgomery gets on track, the Cyclones can chew up the clock and limit the possessions for Ferguson and the Tigers’ offense. If Memphis can force Iowa State into third-and-long situations and prevent Montgomery from getting on track, that’s a winning formula for Norvell's group and a way for this team to control the pace of the game.

Final Analysis

The Liberty Bowl should an intriguing matchup. Memphis has the homefield advantage and a ton of firepower on offense behind Ferguson and Miller. The Tigers want to jump out early and force Iowa State to play from behind, limiting the ability of Montgomery and the ground attack to control the game. If Montgomery gets on track, Memphis’ defense is going to have a hard time getting stops against Iowa State’s offense. Look for Ferguson and Miller to connect on a couple of plays in the fourth quarter that decide this game.

College Football Rankings: Memphis Football

Prediction: Memphis 34, Iowa State 31