The No. 21 Memphis Tigers can wrap up a spot in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game with a victory on Saturday. Since dropping its conference opener by a wide margin to UCF, the Tigers have won five straight and at 8-1, are just two wins from tying a school record for victories.
The opponent this week will be a good SMU team, who comes in with a record of 6-4. The Mustangs have lost consecutive games to UCF and Navy, but by a combined 10 points. Both were decided late. SMU however, is just one win away from ensuring a winning season for the first time since 2012 and its first as a member of the AAC.
The Tigers have won three straight in the series with the average margin of victory being just under 48 points. Memphis trounced SMU a season ago in Dallas, 51-7. SMU is looking for its first win over a ranked team since defeating Houston last season.
SMU at Memphis
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 18 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPNews
Spread: Memphis -13
Three Things to Watch
Saturday’s contest in Memphis will feature the top two passers in the AAC and two of the top 15 players nationally when it comes to passing yards. The bigger name of the two is Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson, who is coming off a four-touchdown performance in a win over Tulsa. Since struggling in the opener against Louisiana-Monroe, Ferguson has passed for at least 279 yards in every game and has thrown for more than 400 yards twice and for at least three touchdowns five times, including seven in a win over Connecticut earlier this season and six in an upset of UCLA.
Not to be forgotten, SMU sophomore quarterback Ben Hicks (above, right) also has had a stellar year as the Mustangs are bowl eligible for the first time in five seasons. Hicks has a solid corps of skill players around him and he has improved immensely after being thrown into the fire as a freshman. Hicks threw four touchdown passes last week and rallied the Mustangs from 23 points down to tie Navy, only to lose on a last-second field goal.
2. Memphis offensive line vs. SMU defensive line
The battle up front will be one to watch this week, especially when Memphis has the football. The Tigers have been outstanding this season in pass protection as the offensive line has yielded just 10 sacks all season. Led by center Drew Kyser and senior guard Gabe Kuhn, only nine FBS teams have allowed fewer sacks than Memphis. Among those nine teams, only Colorado State has attempted more passes than the Tigers.
That Memphis offensive line however, should have its hands full this week. SMU ranks second in the AAC with 26 sacks. Only South Florida has more. The name to know up front for the Mustangs is defensive end Justin Lawler. Lawler leads the team with 7.5 sacks and 13 tackles for a loss. When it comes to being able to get to the passer however, Lawler is not alone. Fellow defensive end Tyeson Neals has 4.5 sacks and linebacker Kyran Mitchell has four sacks while being tied with Lawler for the team lead in stops behind the line of scrimmage.
3. Home-field advantage
The location of Saturday’s contest is important to note. Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium has been quite kind to the Tigers this season. Memphis has yet to lose at home (5-0), but it has been tested. Three of those five home wins have been decided by eight points or fewer. If this one is close, it's a situation the Tigers are familiar with and have been able to thrive in, at least at home.
For SMU, it’s been quite the opposite as three of the Mustangs’ four losses have come on the road. In those losses however, SMU was competitive, leading both TCU and Houston early on. Then, you have last week’s loss to Navy as time expired. It is important to note the only road win this season for SMU came by three points over a Cincinnati team that is just 3-7 on the year.
Neither SMU nor Memphis are strangers to playing high-scoring shootouts and with a pair of quarterbacks who can sling it, expect more of the same on Saturday. One thing to question is the mental state of the Mustangs after dropping heartbreakers to UCF and Navy in consecutive weeks. Adding insult to injury is that they will be on the road to face a Memphis squad that has yet to lose at home and needs only a win to clinch a spot in the conference title game.
Prediction: Memphis 45, SMU 31
(Ben Hicks photo courtesy of smumustangs.com)