Knights, Tigers meet in matchup of AAC title hopefuls needing a win to stay in the conversation
The UCF Knights and Memphis Tigers are both seeking bounce-back victories when the two teams square off on Saturday. They have gone from American Athletic Conference front-runners to suddenly in need of a victory to stay in another conference title chase.
The Knights (2-1, 1-1 AAC) plummeted out of the AP Top 25 Poll following a come-from-ahead 34-26 loss to Tulsa. UCF blew an 18-point lead after racking up 18 penalties for 124 yards and committing three turnovers. It offset three turnovers by the Golden Hurricane. The Knights failed to score at least 30 points for just the second time in their last 41 games.
The Tigers (1-1, 0-1 AAC) also slipped from the rankings after falling 30-27 to SMU. Memphis rolled up 501 total yards but gave up 474 passing yards to the Mustangs. A costly fumble with 1:25 remaining allowed SMU to set up a game-winning 43-yard field goal from Chris Naggar with nine seconds left.
Memphis has not fared well against UCF in past seasons. The Tigers have lost all 13 games since UCF joined Conference USA in 2005, and Memphis' only win in the series came in their first matchup in 1990.
UCF at Memphis
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 17 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: UCF -3.5
When UCF Has the Ball
Stopping Dillon Gabriel from picking apart a secondary is a near-impossible chore for virtually any defense. Gabriel recorded his seventh career 300-yard passing game against Tulsa after throwing for 330 yards and a touchdown. The sophomore has been even more potent in both UCF wins, throwing for at least 400 yards each time. He is completing 63 percent of his passes and is averaging three touchdown passes per game.
UCF has taken a work-by-committee approach in the running game. The top three running backs, Otis Anderson, Bentavious Thompson, and Greg McCrae, have combined for 446 total yards through three games. Anderson is the same back who tormented Memphis in the 2017 AAC Championship Game when he had his first career 100-yard game. The senior ran for 113 yards on 15 carries and scored the game-winning touchdown in overtime in that contest.
Can Jaylon Robinson keep his 100-yard streak going? The sophomore receiver has been a revelation with three 100-yard straight games to open the season. Robinson's best game came against East Carolina where he torched the Pirates for 150 yards and two touchdowns on only nine receptions. Containing him will need to be a focal point for the Tigers.
When Memphis Has the Ball
As long as Brady White is at the controls, the Tiger offense has plenty of claws. White has racked up 12 straight 200-yard passing games and is coming off a season where he threw for 4,014 yards. This year, he has 576 yards and seven touchdown passes through two games while completing 71 percent of his passes. White is third among the Tigers' career passing leaders with 7,970 yards.
Sean Dykes and Damonte Coxie are doing most of the damage downfield. Each player is averaging eight receptions per game. Both receivers will need to be a focal point for the UCF defense. Dykes exploded for 137 yards and two touchdowns on 10 catches in the season opener against Arkansas State. Coxie is second at Memphis in career receiving yards with 3,052 yards.
Rodrigues Clark and Kylan Watkins are forming a nice one-two punch in the backfield for the Tigers that keeps defenses honest. Clark ranks second in the AAC with 101.5 rushing yards per game. Watkins seems to be on the verge of breaking out after posting his first career 100-yard game last season. He averaged 6.8 yards per carry against SMU.
UCF and Memphis have combined to win the last three AAC championships. The stakes for this latest installment in the series are high once again. The Tigers haven't won a game against the Knights since 1990 but seem to have a real shot at turning the corner here. Memphis has won 10 straight games in its home stadium, and UCF can't get out of its own way in terms of penalties. It won't be easy, but a rare win over their Florida nemesis is within the Tigers' grasp.
Prediction: Memphis 34, UCF 31
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— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports, and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.