It wasn't long ago that UCF and Memphis were the two premier programs in the American Athletic Conference. Friday's contest between the schools will feature two teams aiming just to be above .500.
Since a 2-0 start, UCF has lost three of four games with its only victory being a 20-16 comeback win over East Carolina. The Knights are 3-3 overall, 1-2 in AAC play, and are coming off a 56-21 loss to Cincinnati — their worst in more than five years.
Memphis also has lost three of four. After a 3-0 start that included a win over Mississippi State, the Tigers (4-3, 1-2) dropped their next three contests. They were able to right the ship last week with a 35-17 win over Navy.
Memphis rallied from 21 points down to win a 50-49 thriller between the teams last season at the Liberty Bowl. Quarterback Brady White passed for 486 yards and six touchdowns in the victory. Prior to last season, the Tigers had lost 13 straight games to UCF. They've never won in Orlando (0-5).
Memphis at UCF
Kickoff: Friday, Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: UCF -2
When Memphis Has the Ball
Memphis has had its issues this season, but those are few and far between on the offensive side of the ball. The Tigers enter this game second in the AAC in total offense and fourth in scoring offense at 35.9 points per game. Quarterback Seth Henigan leads the high-powered attack as his 2,153 passing yards pace the conference and rank sixth nationally. Henigan has 16 touchdown passes compared to just four interceptions and talent all around him. Running back Brandon Thomas and wide receiver Calvin Austin III are two names to know.
Thomas and fellow tailback Rodrigues Clark have combined for nearly 900 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns while averaging 6.2 yards per carry. Thomas' 642 yards trail only Cincinnati's Jerome Ford in the AAC. Austin, on the other hand, is not just one of the best wide receivers in the AAC but the entire country. This season, the 5-foot-9, 162-pound veteran ranks second nationally with 857 receiving yards and fourth nationally with eight touchdown catches. Oh, and his only carry of the year went for a 69-yard touchdown. Sean Dykes also has done his part. His 441 yards and five touchdowns lead all tight ends in the conference.
Defensively, UCF has not been impressive, but it has been much better at home than on the road. In the Bounce House, the Knights are allowing 20.3 points per game. On the road, that balloons to 44 points per contest. No wonder UCF is 3-0 in Orlando and 0-3 as the visiting team. As a result of this Jekyll and Hyde persona, the Knights rank in the middle of the pack in the AAC in both total and scoring defense.
The Knights haven't exactly lived in opposing backfields, but Josh Celiscar has three of the team's seven sacks while Big Kat Bryant and Kaila Davis are good players up front. Davis however, was recently lost for the season. Safety Quadric Bullard has been a playmaker in the secondary, but where UCF is deepest and perhaps best is at linebacker. Bryson Armstrong, Tatum Bethune, Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste, and Eriq Gilyard are all solid at the position. Usually among the national leaders, the Knights haven't created a ton of turnovers this season.
When UCF Has the Ball
Another area where UCF is typically among the nation's best is in terms of total and scoring offense. But the season-ending injury to quarterback Dillon Gabriel and the loss of wide receiver Jaylon Robinson, however, have proven to be a lot to overcome. Neither has played since the 42-35 loss at Louisville on Sept. 18. After averaging 45 points per game over its first three, the Knights' scoring has dropped to 24 points per over the past three contests. With uncertainty at quarterback, UCF will likely lean heavily on the run. Johnny Richardson leads the team with 317 rushing yards on 6.1 yards per carry. Northwestern transfer running back Isaiah Bowser returned last week from injury. Although he was largely bottled up, he did record his team-leading sixth rushing touchdown in the 56-21 loss at Cincinnati.
Richardson has made some plays as a receiver out of the backfield, but the top targets in the passing game in light of Robinson's absence have been Ryan O'Keefe and Tennessee transfer Brandon Johnson. O'Keefe leads the team in receiving with 375 yards while Johnson has six of the team's 14 touchdown receptions this season. Mikey Keene has not been sharp at quarterback since taking over for the injured Gabriel. He is completing 62 percent of his passes but averages just six yards per attempt and seems hesitant to try to push the ball down the field. He is a freshman, so the growing pains should be expected. They just come at an inopportune time for the Knights, whose offense flowed through Gabriel.
Defensively, Memphis gives up a lot of yards but typically forces teams to be methodical. Four of the Tigers' six FBS opponents so far have scored at least 31 points. Like UCF, Memphis does not make a lot of plays in the backfield, but it does a decent job of stopping the run. The Tigers have AAC's top two tacklers in linebacker JJ Russell and safety Quindell Johnson. Russell's 77 tackles rank third in the country, but when it comes to getting into the backfield, Xavier Cullens is the name to know for the Tigers.
Cullens leads the team with 6.5 tackles for a loss. Senior defensive end Maurice White has two of the team's 10 sacks. One of Memphis' big issues this season has been a leaky secondary. The Tigers allow the second-most passing yards per game in the conference and have yielded 16 touchdown passes while recording just one interception (and it came against an FCS team). No team in the AAC has allowed more scoring strikes, and only Tulane yields a higher completion rate (67.8 percent vs. Memphis' 66.1).
Playing against Memphis' secondary should give Keene the chance for success as a passer on Friday night, but not having to play against Gabriel could be a big advantage for the Tigers. UCF has played pretty good defense at the Bounce House, but Memphis has a ton of weapons and even in losses, has traditionally had no issue moving the ball against the Knights. Memphis will likely gear up to stop the run and force Keene to win the game. He has yet to prove capable of doing so.
Prediction: Memphis 34, UCF 28
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— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.