First-year head coaches will look to start their tenures off with bowl victories on Wednesday night. Ryan Silverfield and the Memphis Tigers will square off with Willie Taggart and the Florida Atlantic Owls in the Montgomery Bowl.
After a 5-1 start, FAU dropped its final two games of the regular season. Memphis closed the year by winning four of five, although three of those wins came by three points or less. Dating back to his time at South Florida, Taggart has plenty of experience against Memphis, although he is 1-3 all-time against the Tigers.
When it comes to bowl games, on the other hand, the Owls are 4-0 all-time. Florida Atlantic handled SMU in last season's Boca Raton Bowl and got its first bowl win ever against Memphis in the 2007 New Orleans Bowl. Memphis has lost its last five bowl games, including a 53-39 loss to Penn State in last season's Cotton Bowl.
Montgomery Bowl: Memphis vs. Florida Atlantic
Kickoff: Wednesday, Dec. 23 at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Cramton Bowl (Montgomery, Ala.)
Spread: Memphis -8
When Memphis Has the Ball
Memphis wasn't nearly as explosive offensively as it was last season, but the Tigers still averaged more than 450 yards per game and put up at least 40 points three times. Despite significant attrition at the skill positions, senior quarterback Brady White had another solid year with 3,096 yards passing and 28 touchdowns compared to nine interceptions. Memphis ranked just ninth out of 11 teams in the American Athletic Conference in yards per rush and 10th in rushing yards per game this season after Kenneth Gainwell opted out but had three receivers with at least 500 yards.
Calvin Austin III ranks second in the AAC with 1,025 yards receiving and is tied for the conference lead with 10 touchdown catches. Freshman Tahj Washington proved to be a big-play threat with 18.2 yards per reception — good for fourth in the AAC. Senior tight end Sean Dykes had a solid year with 581 receiving yards receiving and seven touchdown catches. The Tigers were 6-0 this season when scoring at least 30 points.
Despite losing so many key pieces from 2019, defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt worked wonders for the FAU defense this season. Although the Owls allowed 45 points to Southern Miss its last time out, FAU ranks 16th nationally in total defense and ninth in scoring defense, yielding less than 17 points per game. Success for FAU starts with the pass rush.
FAU led Conference USA in sacks per game and is tied for the lead in total sacks with 25. Senior linebacker Leighton McCarthy comes in with nine sacks — tops in Conference USA and tied for fourth nationally. Jaylen Joyner, a sophomore defensive end, has come from nowhere with six sacks after recording zero in each of his first two seasons. Other players to watch on the FAU defense are linebacker Chase Lasater and Teja Young. Lasater is the top tackler, while Young leads the team with a pair of interceptions.
When Florida Atlantic Has the Ball
FAU has played solid defense all year long, but offensively, that has not been the case. Since leading a comeback win over Western Kentucky, freshman Javion Posey has been the man behind center for the Owls. Posey's first start against Florida International was a splendid one, but he has since come down to earth over his last three starts. Posey is completing just 30 of 60 passes but makes up for a recently depleted backfield with his legs.
Despite not playing until midseason, Posey leads the team with 401 rushing yards on 7.2 yards per carry. James Charles and Malcolm Davidson had kept the train chugging along since BJ Emmons opted out of the season. Davidson averages 7.1 yards per carry but won't be available for the Montgomery Bowl. Charles, a 190-pound senior, leads the team with four touchdown rushes. Out wide, TJ Chase is the leading receiver for the Owls. As a whole, FAU ranks just 10th out of 13 Conference USA teams in total offense. Only Western Kentucky scores fewer points per contest.
Memphis is nothing special defensively, but the Tigers have done a decent job of bending without breaking. Despite allowing 448.7 yards per game (102nd nationally), they give up 29.7 points per contest (67th). In 10 games, Memphis has forced 18 turnovers. Free safety Quindell Johnson has been an absolute stud for Memphis this season with 70 tackles, three interceptions, and two forced fumbles — all team-highs. Fellow safety Rodney Owens also has three picks for the Tigers.
Up front, defensive end Morris Joseph is the player to watch for Memphis. Joseph leads the team with seven sacks this season — tied for second in the American Athletic Conference. O'Bryan Goodson and Wardalis Ducksworth have each added four sacks this season for Memphis. The Tigers are 6-1 when winning the turnover battle this season and 0-2 when losing it.
Memphis will make the shorter trip to Montgomery than FAU and seems to have the edge in many of the contest's key categories. The Tigers have a much more consistent quarterback and have improved defensively throughout the season. The Owls still struggle on offense, and the defense seemed to finally be wearing down against a struggling Southern Miss team last time out.
Prediction: Memphis 44, Florida Atlantic 20
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— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.