Stakes are high on Friday night as the Memphis Tigers hit the road seeking bowl eligibility and get set to take on the red-hot Houston Cougars.
After an opening week loss at the hands of Texas Tech, Houston (9-1, 7-0) has now rattled off nine straight wins and is No. 24 in the latest College Football Playoff Rankings. The Cougars also are sitting atop the American Athletic Conference standings with an undefeated Cincinnati team right on their heels. The two teams are headed towards a collision in the AAC Championship Game on Dec. 4. Houston wrapped up its spot last Saturday with one of its most complete performances of the season. The Cougars blew out Temple on the road, 37-8, limiting the Owls to just 218 yards of total offense.
The Tigers (5-5, 2-4) are seeking bowl eligibility for the eighth straight season as they sit at .500 coming off a disappointing one-point overtime loss to East Carolina. After limiting an explosive SMU offense to one of their worst outputs of the season two weeks ago, Memphis turned around and allowed 502 yards of offense to the Pirates, almost 100 more than its seasonal average.
Memphis at No. 24 Houston
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 19 at 9 p.m. ET
Spread: Houston -9.5
When Memphis Has the Ball
Injuries and youth have contributed to the inconsistent play on offense for the Tigers this season. Star receiver Calvin Austin III ranks inside the top 20 in the country in receptions (67), yards (1,026), and touchdowns (8) but has been dealing with nagging injuries for the last few weeks, per head coach Ryan Silverfield. He has not been practicing much in that span, and Austin played just 27 offensive snaps last week against East Carolina and sat out a significant portion of the first half.
Rutgers transfer Eddie Lewis has stepped up in place of Austin the last two games, with nine receptions on 18 targets, and now has three touchdowns in the last four weeks. Star tight end Sean Dykes continues to be a mainstay in the Memphis offense, second on the team with seven touchdown grabs.
Injuries also have contributed to the struggles running the football the last three games, as leading rusher Brandon Thomas has just 27 yards over that span and did not play against SMU in Week 10. Against ECU, it was freshman quarterback Seth Henigan who found the most success on the ground with 61 yards on 12 carries. The Memphis running backs combined for just 46 yards on 11 attempts. Henigan, a true freshman, has generally played well in his first year, completing 61.1 percent of his passes for 2,778 yards and 21 touchdowns to just six interceptions. Five of those six interceptions have come in the last four games, though.
Memphis has scored 25 or more points in all but one game this season, though this will be its most challenging matchup to date against a Houston defense that is second in the conference in scoring (20.8 ppg) and first in total defense (291.9 ypg).
When Houston Has the Ball
The Houston offense is far from dominant in any one particular area, but the unit as a whole is playing complementary and mistake-free football. The Cougars are just 10th of 11 teams in the AAC in rushing but have really hit their stride the last two games with more than 200 yards against both South Florida and Temple with a combined seven rushing scores. True freshman Alton McCaskill continues to look like the future of the Houston program, topping 100 yards in both games with five touchdowns. McCaskill's 732 rushing yards put him third in the country among freshman running backs, sitting behind Ohio State's TreVeyon Henderson and Wisconsin's Braelon Allen.
Junior quarterback Clayton Tune has improved in nearly every statistical category since last season, completing 69.8 percent of his passes for 2,448 yards and 21 touchdowns with just six interceptions. After tossing four interceptions in the opener against Texas Tech, Tune only has two in the last nine games and hasn't thrown an INT in the last five contests. In fact, Houston is tied for fourth in the country in turnover margin. Tune will have his chances on Saturday against a Memphis defense that ranks 107th in the country, allowing 260 yards per game through the air to go with a 65.6 percent completion rate.
Houston is clearly one of the top two teams in the AAC, and Memphis has been far too inconsistent this season to pick to win outright. Could the Tigers keep this matchup close? Two factors not working in the favor of Memphis: (1) their best player (Austin) is not 100 percent, and (2) the Tigers are 0-4 this season against the spread on the road. This isn’t a look-ahead spot for the Cougars either, who get lowly UConn next week to finish off the regular season before heading to the conference championship game.
Prediction: Houston 35, Memphis 24
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— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.