Tulane travels to Memphis for a key showdown of two of the Group of 5’s top teams on Saturday night. The American Athletic Conference’s West Division is the top division among Group of 5 conferences, and Saturday’s meeting between the Green Wave and Tigers will help to shape a tight battle for the top spot that also features SMU and Navy.
Tulane is a program on the rise under coach Willie Fritz. The Green Wave went 4-8 in Fritz’s first year (2016) but have made steady improvement over the last three seasons. The program went 5-7 in 2017 and finished 7-6 with a bowl victory in ’18. Tulane has continued its improvement this fall, as Fritz’s squad is 5-1 through its first six games. The Green Wave picked up a last-second win over Houston to open conference play, defeated Army 42-33 on Oct. 5 and dominated UConn 49-7 last Saturday. Tulane’s only loss in 2019 came at Auburn in Week 2.
Memphis’ hopes of an undefeated season ended at Temple last Saturday. The Tigers outgained the Owls 492 to 456 but four turnovers and three failed fourth-down conversions were too much to overcome. Despite the loss, Memphis is still in the mix to rank as the top Group of 5 team. The Tigers have remaining games against Tulane, SMU and Cincinnati, so plenty of opportunities remain to play their way to an 11-1 record and a top-25 ranking.
Memphis owns a 22-12-1 series edge over Tulane. The Green Wave have not won in Memphis since 1998.
Tulane at Memphis
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 19 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Memphis -4
When Tulane Has the Ball
Even though Tulane took a step forward and finished with the program’s first winning record since 2013 last season, Fritz wasn’t satisfied. In an effort to upgrade the offense, Will Hall replaced Doug Ruse as the program’s coordinator. Through six games, this move has already paid big dividends for Tulane.
Tulane’s offense averaged only 26.8 points a game in 2018 but has increased that total to 39.2 a contest in ’19. On a per-play basis, the Green Wave average 6.93 yards a snap this fall – up from 5.8 last season. The strength of this group is still the ground game, but the offense is more efficient and explosive through the air.
The defensive line and linebacker unit was expected to be a strength for Memphis this year, but this unit has been susceptible to the run. The Tigers rank 10th in the AAC against the run (181.5 yards a game) and ninth on a per-carry basis (4.14). The Green Wave will test this group with a handful of running backs, as no player has more than 66 carries this season. Darius Bradwell missed last week’s win over UConn but would be the No. 1 option if healthy. Corey Dauphine is explosive (11.03 ypc), with Amare Jones (230 yards), Stephon Huderson (5.6 ypc) and freshmen Cameron Carroll and Tyjae Spears rounding out a deep stable of backs. Quarterback Justin McMillan (301 yards and six scores) is another option for Memphis to account for on the ground.
With a strong ground game and defense to lean on, McMillan doesn’t need to throw 40 times a game. The senior ranks eighth in the AAC in total passing yards a game (173.7) but makes the most of his opportunities. McMillan averages nearly 13 yards a completion and hasn’t tossed an interception over his last three games. The senior has two of the AAC’s top receivers (Darnell Mooney and Jalen McCleskey) at his disposal to test a Memphis secondary ranked fifth in the AAC in pass efficiency defense.
Although Memphis has been vulnerable to the run, this unit is still holding teams to just 4.9 yards a play and 21 points a game. Can the Tigers slow down Tulane’s ground game and force McMillan, Mooney and McCleskey to win this game through the air?
When Memphis Has the Ball
The departure of Darrell Henderson early to the NFL was a setback to coach Mike Norvell’s offense, but the Tigers had a capable replacement waiting in the wings in Patrick Taylor. After all, Taylor rushed for 1,122 yards and 16 scores as the backup to Henderson in 2018. But after rushing for 128 yards and a touchdown in the opener against Ole Miss, Taylor has been sidelined for the last five games due to injury. The senior appears to be on track in his recovery, but his status for Saturday night’s game remains a question mark.
When healthy, Taylor is one of the top backs in the AAC. However, Memphis hasn’t missed a beat on the ground over the last five contests. That’s due to the development of freshman Kenneth Gainwell (726 yards) and sophomore Kylan Watkins (241). Gainwell enters Saturday night’s game averaging a whopping 7.6 yards per rush and has eclipsed at least 100 yards in each of the last four contests.
Outside of allowing 304 rushing yards to Houston, Tulane’s defense has been tough against opposing ground games this year. Led by a standout defensive line, the Green Wave are holding teams to 4.1 yards per carry and have allowed only one run of 40 yards or more.
With Tulane expected to focus on stopping Gainwell, Watkins and potentially Taylor, Memphis needs a mistake-free (and efficient) game from quarterback Brady White. The junior enters Saturday night’s game with a good completion rate (69.9) and has tossed 13 touchdowns to just four picks. However, White lost a couple of fumbles in last week’s loss to Temple and has been inconsistent at times. Damonte Coxie (29 catches), tight end Joey Magnifico and Gainwell have been White’s favorite targets this season.
The personnel on both sidelines has changed a bit, but Tulane’s defense is likely to tap into last year’s gameplan to slow down Memphis’ offense once again. The Green Wave generated pressure on White (seven sacks) and held the Tigers to just 31 rushing yards over 21 carries. Winning the battle up front is crucial for both teams on Saturday night.
The last eight matchups between Tulane and Memphis have been decided by 10 or more points. Considering what’s at stake, a repeat of that statistic seems unlikely on Saturday night. Tulane is undefeated in conference play and (depending on where you look), ranks among the top 25 teams going into Week 8. Memphis suffered its first loss last Saturday but could rebound back into the top 25 with a win this week. Additionally, the winner of this game would move a step closer to taking control of the AAC West. With both teams boasting standout ground games, whichever defense can get enough stops (and turnovers) is likely to wrestle control of this matchup. Tulane is plus-four in turnover margin, while Memphis is minus-two. The Green Wave win the turnover battle and get a couple of big plays from McMillan and his receivers to escape the Liberty Bowl with a close win.