A week after suffering their first loss of the season, the Memphis Tigers have a chance to remain in the hunt for the AAC West Division title. It will not come easily though, as Memphis takes to the road to play an undefeated Houston team that continues to rise as the season progresses with a dynamic offense and a capable defense.
Memphis and Houston should provide plenty of fireworks to make for an entertaining game Saturday night, but this has become a must-win game for the Tigers, who just a week ago looked to be the clear favorite to reach the New Year's Six out of the Group of 5. Now, Houston is looking to take on the role of front-runner in that conversation, and it can do that with a victory over the Tigers to go to 10-0 with Navy still two weeks away.
College Football Podcast: Week 11 Preview
Memphis at Houston
Kickoff: 7 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Spread: Houston -5.0
Three Things To Watch
1. Top American Offenses Collide
Expect plenty of yards and points when Memphis and Houston take the field this week. Both are averaging at least 525 yards per game and 6.5 yards per play. In 18 combined games, Houston and Memphis have accumulated over 9,800 yards of offense. Memphis and Houston also lead the conference in average scoring, with Memphis averaging 44.8 yards per game and Houston averaging 44.4 points per game. No other team in the conference has an average within six points.
If you are curious, Houston's scoring defense is considerably better than Memphis' through nine games. The Cougars are allowing just 18.7 points per game. Memphis has allowed an average of 28.7 points per game, including 45 to Navy last week. Memphis has also given up 41 points to Bowling Green and 42 to Tulsa, but they held Ole Miss to 24 points in a 37-24 victory over the SEC team that beat Alabama.
2. QB Showdown: Paxton Lynch vs. Greg Ward Jr.
Two of the top quarterbacks in the American Athletic Conference will look to keep pace with each other. Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch leads the conference with his 3,014 passing yards and 19 touchdowns with just two interceptions thrown. Lynch may have suffered a shot at being invited to New York last week in a loss to Navy, but Lynch remains a rising quarterback and a potential high draft pick in the NFL Draft according to most scouts. He is a perfect fit for the Memphis offense and has thrown a touchdown in each of his last 14 games dating back to last season. He has also thrown for at least 300 yards in all but one game this season, but that one game was the season opener against Southwest Missouri State, where he got an early rest in a blowout.
Houston's Greg Ward Jr. is more of a dual-threat quarterback. Through nine games, Ward has thrown for 2,116 yards and 13 touchdowns with four interceptions. He is also fourth in the conference in rushing with 829 yards and a conference-leading 16 rushing touchdowns. This will be the second week Memphis has faced a team with a running threat at quarterback after facing Navy and Keenan Reynolds last week. The Tigers played well against Reynolds, but Navy had another option in running back Chris Swain to do the damage. Memphis will focus on slowing down Ward in a similar fashion, but must be prepared to tackle Houston running back Kenneth Farrow, the AAC's second-leading rusher. Doing both may end up costing Memphis another game because Ward can beat a team with his legs and his arm if needed.
3. Houston's Turnover Happy Defense
Lynch has only been picked off twice this season, but this week he takes on one of the top defenses when it comes to turnovers. Houston has picked off 14 passes this season, second-most among AAC teams with Temple and UConn each with 15. No team in the AAC has returned more interceptions for touchdowns than Houston, who has done so three times this season. Houston has eight interceptions in its last three games, including two that have been returned for a touchdown. Seniors Adrian McDonald and William Jackson III have combined for seven of the Houston interceptions this season. Junior linebacker Steven Taylor has two, and five others each have one interception this season.
Interceptions are not the only thing Memphis needs to be concerned about. Houston is also second in the AAC in fumble recoveries this season, with 11 recovered fumbles (Navy leads the AAC with 12 recoveries). Last week against Navy, Memphis lost two fumbles and Lynch was picked off once. Only one of those turnovers led to points against Memphis. If Houston gets its hands on the ball, it will have to take advantage of the extra opportunities.
Before the season started, this looked to be a pivotal game in the AAC West Division, and that continues to be the case in mid-November. Houston has played very well under first-year head coach Tom Herman and gets the luxury of having homefield advantage for the biggest game of the season. What remains to be seen is how Memphis comes out of the gates a week after taking its first loss of the season, one that may end up knocking them out of the division and conference title race. This is now a must-win for Memphis, and it has all of the tools to rebound if it can get off to a good start. Houston's offense could jump on a sluggish Memphis team if the Tigers are not in the right mindset. The difference will be Houston's defense. If the Cougars can make some plays on defense, as they have done frequently this season, they will gain an edge and come out on top of what should be a wildly entertaining shootout.
Prediction: Houston 47, Memphis 46
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also writes for CollegeFootballTalk.com and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.