The inaugural Miami Beach Bowl also features the first meeting in program history between Memphis and BYU. The Tigers were one of college football’s biggest surprises in 2014, improving from 3-9 in 2013 to 9-3 this season. Coach Justin Fuente has brought significant and immediate improvement to the Tigers, as this team shared the American Athletic Conference title after a 7-1 mark in league play this year. BYU finished its 10th season under coach Bronco Mendenhall with a solid 8-4 record. The Cougars are 4-1 in their last five bowl appearances.
The Miami Beach Bowl will be Memphis’ first postseason appearance since the 2008 St. Petersburg Bowl. A key reason for the Tigers’ improvement in 2014 was the development of the offense behind sophomore quarterback Paxton Lynch. After averaging only 4.7 yards per play in 2013, Memphis averaged 5.5 yards per play this season. Lynch threw for 18 touchdowns and 2,725 yards in 2014 and increased his completion percentage to 64 percent after a 58.2 mark last year. While Lynch has started all season for Memphis, it’s been a different situation for BYU. The Cougars lost quarterback Taysom Hill due to a season-ending leg injury against Utah State, which elevated backup Christian Stewart into the full-time role. Stewart has performed well in Hill’s absence, and his job was only made more challenging with the loss of running back Jamaal Williams to a season-ending knee injury against MTSU.
The Miami Beach Bowl is played at Marlins Park in Miami, Fla. The baseball stadium is built on the site of the old Orange Bowl.
Memphis vs. BYU
Kickoff: Dec. 22 at 2 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Memphis - 1
Memphis’ Key to Victory: Win the Turnover Battle
An underrated cog in Memphis’ 9-3 record this season was its +12 in turnover margin. The Tigers forced 27 turnovers and only lost 15. The turnaround in margin was critical after Fuente’s team went -8 last year and finished 3-9 with a handful of close losses. BYU has a -2 turnover margin in 2014 and lost five turnovers over its final three games. Quarterback Christian Stewart has stepped into a difficult situation and played well, completing 58.7 percent of his passes, with 22 touchdowns to just six interceptions. While Stewart has limited mistakes, BYU has lost 14 fumbles this season, which is tied for 119th nationally. Without Williams toting the workload from the backfield, juniors Adam Hine and Nate Carter, senior Paul Lasike and sophomore Algernon Brown have been pressed into more playing time. The Cougars are still having success on the ground with Williams sidelined, as this team recorded 267 rushing yards against UNLV and 264 against Savannah State. Memphis limits opponents to 3.5 yards per carry and ranks second in the American Athletic Conference in pass efficiency defense. Additionally, this defense is active around the line of scrimmage and can get pressure with its front four. BYU has been vulnerable in pass protection, which should allow the Tigers to pressure Stewart, as well as get into the backfield on running plays. Both of those situations create good opportunities to force turnovers. And on offense, Memphis needs to continue limiting their mistakes (15 lost turnovers). Lynch has not tossed an interception in six games, and his efficient play will be valuable against a BYU secondary that has allowed 21 scores in 2014.
BYU’s Key to Victory: Give QB Christian Stewart Time to Throw
As we mentioned previously, Stewart assumed control of BYU’s offense after a season-ending injury to Taysom Hill. The Snow College transfer finished the year on a high note, throwing for 433 yards and five scores against California. Stewart is not as dynamic of a runner as Hill was, but the senior recorded 52 rushing yards against UCF, 47 against Nevada and 38 against UNLV. The mobility could come in handy against an active Memphis defense. Coordinator Barry Odom has transformed the Tigers into one of the nation’s top defenses this year, limiting opponents to 4.8 yards per play (12th nationally). The strength of Memphis’ defense resides in its front seven, as end Martin Ifedi and linebacker Tank Jakes earned first-team all-conference honors in 2014. Jakes led the team with 15.5 tackles for a loss, recorded six sacks and four forced fumbles, while Ifedi picked up 9.5 tackles for a loss and 29 tackles in eight appearances this season. Protecting Stewart and Hill has been a problem on the stat sheet for BYU, as the offensive line allowed 34 sacks in 12 games. Freshman center Tejan Koroma was a bright spot for this line, and it’s tough to place all of the sacks on the front five as mobile quarterbacks often extend the play and are sacked long after a clean pocket was established. If Stewart has time to throw, the receiving corps is capable of producing big plays. Senior Jordan Leslie (14 ypc), and Mitch Mathews (8 TDs, 840 yards) are the favorite targets, but Mitchell Juergens and tight end Devin Mahina are also key weapons for Stewart.
This should be one of the better pre-Christmas bowls. Memphis and BYU should have plenty of motivation to be in this game, and the Tigers are one of the nation’s most improved teams after going 3-9 last season. The Cougars managed to keep things going after injuries to Hill and Williams and finished the season on a four-game winning streak. Memphis has the edge on defense, but BYU also allows less than five yards per play. The growth and continued improvement of the Tigers’ offensive attack – led by quarterback Paxton Lynch and running back Brandon Hayes – is a big reason why Memphis shared the American Athletic Conference title. Expect a close one in Miami. The Tigers edge BYU to record its first 10-win season since 1938.