Memphis hosts SMU on Saturday night in a matchup of top 25 teams with major implications for the American Athletic Conference title and the battle to be the top Group of 5 team at the end of the 2019 season. The Mustangs checked in at 8-0 and No. 15 in the latest Associated Press poll, with the Tigers at No. 24 with a 7-1 mark.
SMU is off to its best start (8-0) since 1982. The Mustangs need just two victories to post the school’s first double-digit win total since 1984. Second-year coach Sonny Dykes didn’t inherit a total rebuild from the last coach (Chad Morris) and quickly added to the roster thanks to the transfer portal. The additions of players like quarterback Shane Buechele and receiver Reggie Roberson have been a big reason why the Mustangs are undefeated and in the mix to rank as the top Group of 5 team by December. But the road ahead has a few tough matchups to navigate. SMU gets Memphis this Saturday, followed by East Carolina and tricky games against Navy and Tulane.
Memphis is looking for its third consecutive AAC West Division title under coach Mike Norvell. The Tigers have already dispatched of Navy (35-23) and Tulane (47-17) in conference play and defeated Ole Miss (15-10) in the opener. The team’s only loss came to Temple (30-28) on Oct. 12. Similar to SMU, Memphis is squarely in the mix to be the top Group of 5 team. But before Norvell’s squad can contemplate their December plans, beating SMU and winning the conference title is the top priority.
Memphis holds an 8-3 series edge over SMU. The Tigers have won five in a row over the Mustangs.
SMU at Memphis
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 2 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Memphis -5.5
When SMU Has the Ball
The arrival of Texas transfer Shane Buechele is one of the biggest reasons for SMU’s improvement in 2019. Buechele leads all AAC quarterbacks by averaging 290.6 passing yards a game and is completing 63.2 percent of his throws. The junior has tossed 20 touchdowns to just seven picks and added two more scores on the ground. With Buechele leading the way, SMU is averaging 43 points a game and six yards a play.
The junior quarterback isn’t the only standout on offense for coach Sonny Dykes. Running back Xavier Jones has rushed for 884 yards and 14 touchdowns and ranks among the AAC’s best at his position. Ke’Mon Freeman and TJ McDaniel have combined for over 500 yards and provide quality depth behind Jones. Receiver James Proche is a candidate for All-America honors and paces the team with 61 catches and nine touchdown grabs in 2019. He ranks second (692) to Reggie Roberson (803) in receiving yards this season. Roberson’s status is up in the air after suffering a foot injury against Houston last Thursday. If Roberson can’t go, tight end Kylen Granson (22 catches) and receivers Myron Gailliard, Tyler Page and Rashee Rice will play a bigger role in the passing attack.
In addition to the balance SMU has on offense, this unit has generated 16 plays of 40 yards or more. Memphis figures to have its hands full with big-play ability and balance that the Mustangs will present on Saturday night. However, the Tigers are holding teams to 23 points a game, rank third in the AAC in pass efficiency defense and have surrendered only six plays of 40 yards or more in 2019. SMU has allowed only nine sacks this fall but will be tested by a Memphis front that has generated 16 over eight games.
When Memphis Has the Ball
Memphis has scored at least 42 points in three out of its last four games and has been held under 30 points just once over the last seven contests. And similar to SMU’s offense, the Tigers are capable of burning opposing defenses through the air or on the ground.
Patrick Taylor was slated to assume the No. 1 role in the backfield this season after Darrell Henderson departed for the NFL. Taylor started strong with 128 yards against Ole Miss in the opener but has missed the last seven games due to injury. Kenneth Gainwell has emerged in Taylor’s absence as one of the top freshmen in the nation with 979 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. Gainwell is averaging a healthy 7.2 yards per rush and leads all running backs in the AAC with six rushes of 40 or more yards. Taylor’s status is uncertain once again this week, which means Kylan Watkins or Traveon Samuel will work as the backup on Saturday night. The Mustangs have been tough against the run, holding teams to just 116.8 yards a game on the ground. However, Memphis is the best rushing attack this team will face in 2019, and SMU’s defense has been vulnerable at times (211 against North Texas and 236 versus TCU).
With quarterback Brady White completing 69 percent of his throws for 2,161 yards and 20 touchdowns this season, SMU won’t be able to devote all of its defensive attention to the ground game. White has tossed only four picks over 210 attempts and torched Tulane for 358 yards and five touchdowns in a key AAC showdown just two weeks ago. Damonte Coxie (37 catches), Antonio Gibson (13), Kedarian Jones (19) and Calvin Austin (six) round out a solid group of weapons on the outside. SMU ranks ninth in the AAC in pass efficiency defense, so the secondary will have its hands full in one-on-one battles on the outside.
Considering SMU’s firepower on offense, this team doesn’t need a shutdown defense to win. However, the Mustangs have made progress on this side of the ball over the last two years and rank sixth in the AAC in scoring defense (27.8 ppg). This group is also holding teams to 5.2 yards per play and has generated 36 sacks through eight games. However, the Mustangs have been vulnerable to big plays (11 of 40 yards or more). SMU might give up a few big plays, but this unit also hopes to generate a takeaway or create havoc with a sack to put Memphis in long-yardage situations.
Memphis has a five-game winning streak against SMU and four of those victories came by 20 or more points. Expect a closer battle on Saturday night. With the firepower on both sidelines, a high-scoring game is likely. Both offenses should be able to have success moving the ball, so timely stops, turnovers and sacks or tackles for a loss will make a big difference. White connects with Coxie for a few big plays through the air, but SMU struggles to contain Gainwell in the second half, which lifts Memphis to a huge win on Saturday night.