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Memphis Tigers vs. SMU Mustangs Prediction and Preview

Memphis Tigers vs. SMU Mustangs Prediction and Preview

Memphis Tigers vs. SMU Mustangs Prediction and Preview

As defending AAC West champions, and after coming up just short of the conference title in a double-overtime loss to undefeated UCF, the Memphis Tigers entered the 2018 college football season with huge expectations. However, Mike Norvell’s Tigers are looking up at the SMU Mustangs (and two other division rivals) in the standings ahead of a Friday night showdown in Dallas. Memphis enters the game 6-4 overall and 3-3 in conference but has momentum at its back having won two games in a row following a midseason bye. Last week, the Tigers beat Tulsa 47-21 to keep hope alive in the race for the division crown.

SMU is just 5-5 overall but 4-2 in league play and tied with Houston and Tulane in first place. The Mustangs currently hold the tiebreaker over both and also bring a two-game win streak into the matchup following a 45-31 victory over Houston two weeks ago and a 62-50 barnburner on the road against Connecticut last Saturday. An SMU victory on Friday would secure bowl eligibility and put the Mustangs one step away from the AAC Championship Game in Sonny Dykes’ first season as head coach.

Memphis at SMU

Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 16 at 9 p.m. ET

TV: ESPN2

Spread: Memphis -8

Three Things to Watch

1. Memphis RB Darrell Henderson

The best player on the field, and one of the most exciting college football players in the country, is Henderson. The junior has averaged an explosive 9.15 yards per carry this season, which leads all FBS running backs with 70 carries or more.

Overall, Henderson leads the AAC and ranks second nationally in both rushing yardage (1,446) and rushing touchdowns (17). He has seven 100-yard rushing games, including two in which he gained more than 200, and has scored a touchdown in nine of 10 contests. A solid receiver out of the backfield as well, Henderson has 283 receiving yards and three TDs on 15 receptions — a terrific 18.9-yard average that would rank third in the AAC among receivers if he qualified for the conference leaderboard.

2. The quarterbacks

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SMU quarterback Ben Hicks surprised by playing himself into a battle for the starting job early in the season, and the junior spent the majority of the games against Navy and Houston Baptist on the sidelines while freshman William Brown led the offense. However, Hicks stepped in in relief against UCF, secured the school record for career passing yardage (8,418 and counting), and regained his spot atop the depth chart. Since regaining the starting job, Hicks had led the Mustangs to three wins in four games while averaging 303.3 passing yards and tossing 10 touchdowns and only two interceptions in the process. The junior ranks sixth in the AAC in passing (191.9 yards per game) this season and has a solid 16-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

Memphis QB Brady White has completed 64.3 percent of his passes for 2,512 yards and 22 touchdowns with only three interceptions in his first season as a starter. White ranks fourth in the AAC in passing (251.2 yards per game) and leads the league and ranks No. 6 in the nation with an average of 9.2 yards per pass attempt. His 166.39 passer rating is second best in the league and seventh best nationally.

White’s overall numbers are slightly inflated because he feasted on weak opponents in early season non-conference play. The Arizona State transfer completed a combined 75.9 percent of his passes for 919 yards and 12 touchdowns without an interception in September victories over Mercer, Georgia State and South Alabama, but he has also struggled at times. In the Tigers’ losses, White has completed 61-of-121 attempts (50.4 percent) for 808 yards with four TDs and all three of his interceptions. However, a well-timed bye week seems to have revitalized White: In wins over East Carolina and Tulsa since the Memphis off-week, he’s hitting on 70 percent of his passes for a combined 546 yards and five touchdowns.

3. Rushing the passer

Both SMU and Memphis have balanced and dynamic offenses, and both are capable of putting up huge point and yardage totals. The strength of both passing attacks is an important factor in this matchup, which makes the ability to rush the passer paramount. As luck would have it, both the Mustangs and Tigers feature some of the top pass rushers in the AAC.

Memphis linebacker Bryce Huff ranks fourth in the conference with 6.0 sacks, which is one sack and one spot better than his teammate, defensive lineman Joseph Dorceus. Fellow linemen Jonathan Wilson and John Tate IV have recorded 3.0 sacks apiece. SMU linebacker Richard Moore ranks eighth on the AAC leaderboard with 4.5 sacks this season while defensive lineman Delontae Scott and linebacker Kyran Mitchell sit just behind him with 4.0 each.

Final Analysis

Thanks in large part to the talented trio of Henderson, White and receiver Damonte Coxie, Memphis ranks No. 6 in the country in scoring offense (44.6 points per game). Though SMU sits far lower at 32.3 points per game overall, the Mustangs have rallied nicely in recent weeks. Since Hicks regained his starting spot, SMU has averaged 38.5 points per game, and in two games in November, the Mustangs have averaged 53.5 points per contest, which leads the league — but by only half a point over the Tigers, who have averaged 53.0 points per game since the bye week.

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Nevertheless, SMU has found its stride in the second half of the season, and the Mustangs have an opportunity to secure bowl eligibility with a win, which would also put them in position to win the division next week against Tulsa. Expect a close, back-and-forth shootout, and don’t be surprised if the Mustangs pull off the upset.

Prediction: SMU 38, Memphis 35

— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.

(Top photo by Joe Murphy/University of Memphis)