On Thursday night, the American Athletic Conference is serving up one of the more entertaining games on its conference slate this season. The Houston Cougars host the Memphis Tigers in a pivotal AAC West Division clash that could determine what team represents the division in the AAC Championship Game at the end of the season. It is also a fun little matchup between some of the newer coaches in the conference with second-year head coach Mike Norvell at Memphis matching wits against first-year head coach Major Applewhite.
This game carries some significance not just in the AAC championship race, specifically in the West Division, but also in the Group of 5 New Year's Six competition in the larger picture. Memphis scored a pivotal head-to-head win last week against Navy and a win against Houston would put Memphis in first place in the AAC West Division with head-to-head tiebreakers against the Midshipmen and Houston. And that would firmly put Memphis in the mix for a spot in the New Year's Six. Remember only Group of 5 conference champions are eligible, and San Diego State just took a loss to fall back from the top spot in the pecking order.
Memphis at Houston
Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 19 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Houston -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Riley Ferguson vs. ball-hawking Cougars
Ferguson (above, right) enters the Thursday night showdown as the top passer in the AAC with 1,814 yards (302.3 ypg) and 19 touchdowns. But this week he goes up against one of the best teams in the conference in forcing turnovers through the air. Houston has the second-most interceptions in the conference with nine (South Florida has an astounding 15 so far). Houston has recorded at least one interception in each game played this season, and the Cougars have allowed more touchdown passes than interceptions just once this season (Texas Tech with two touchdowns and one interception thrown).
Ferguson injured his knee last weekend against Navy but returned to the game to lead the Tigers to victory.
2. "Defensively, it starts with Ed Oliver."
You don't have to be Memphis head coach Mike Norvell to understand preparing for Houston's defense starts with figuring out what to do with Oliver. He looked good last weekend against Tulsa despite being a game-time decision after a mild injury from a low block the previous week against Temple. Commenting on the league's top defensive prospect (and perhaps overall NFL talent), Norvell said "He is one of the most impactful players in the country." He's right. Oliver's defensive stats may not impress you at first glance, but look to see how teams are playing him with double teams and doing what they can to run the play away from him. Oliver makes offensive coordinators plan to keep the ball away from him as much as possible.
3. Houston finds an advantage on defense inside the red zone
Houston and Memphis are fairly even when it comes to red zone production once they enter the 20-yard line. The scoring percentage and touchdown percentage for both teams are close enough to suggest there is no real difference between the Cougars and Tigers. Where Houston seems to have separated themselves is on defense. Houston has the best red zone touchdown defense in the AAC with just 40.9 percent of opponent's red zone trips resulting in touchdowns. The next best is South Florida (50.0 percent). Memphis has allowed red zone touchdowns on 57.1 percent of opponents' red zone trips.
This seems like a well-balanced and even matchup across the board. Memphis has the conference's top wide receiver in Anthony Miller, but Houston's passing game has playmakers as well with Steven Dunbar and Linell Bonner. Where Memphis has the clear advantage is at quarterback with Riley Ferguson. Kyle Postma supplanted Kyle Allen as the starter but can be prone to make a mistake with the ball even if Houston is ahead comfortably (four interceptions were thrown with a lead up to 14 points). Expect another good outing from Ferguson and Miller on the national stage to get Memphis out of Houston with an important win.
Prediction: Memphis 37, Houston 33
— 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 contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.
(Ed Oliver photo courtesy of University of Houston Athletics)