7:00 PM EST, ESPN2 – Line: Memphis -1.5, Over/Under: 63.5
A pair of former AAC powerhouses look to get back on track tonight in Orlando, as the Memphis Tigers look to build off of last weekend’s victory heading into the Bounce House to face the UCF Knights, who find themselves reeling after losing three of their last four games. After enjoying what was certainly the most successful spell in the history of the program (57-23 from 2014 to 2019), it appears that Memphis (4-3, 1-2 in AAC) is indeed trending in the opposite direction halfway through (Head Coach) Ryan Silverfield’s second season in charge. The longtime assistant spent four years under former Head Coach, Mike Norvell, coaching a variety of positions on the offensive side of the football only to take over in 2020 in lieu of the pandemic-influenced campaign. All things considered, Silverfield did a solid job in his first year as the Tigers’ leading man, directing them to an 8-3 finish en route to ending a five-year bowl losing streak, toppling Florida Atlantic in the Montgomery Bowl, 25-10. Simply put, it was nothing short of an admirable performance by the 41-year old, who saw his team go nearly a month between games due to a breakout of positive COIVD-19 cases, while also losing a pair of key contributors, (All-American Tailback) Kenneth Gainwell and (All-AAC Receiver) Damonte Coxie, with both players opting out of 2020 altogether. One would imagine that the gauntlet of obstacles would begin to dissipate for the Head Coach with 2020 behind him, but unfortunately that hasn’t been the case at all; for all intents and purposes it appears that Silverfield’s Sophomore campaign has been even more difficult, what with losing nearly twenty players to opt-outs and the transfer portal, all the while searching for a solution at the game’s most important position: Quarterback. Memphis benefitted greatly by the presence of (former Quarterback) Brady White last season, with the fifth-year Senior choosing to finish his career with the Tigers, whom over the course of the last three years threw for 10,690 yards and ninety touchdowns en route to amassing a stellar 28-11 record, the most victories by any Quarterback in school history. Needless to say, replacing him was always going to be at the top of Silverfield’s list of priorities, and with seven games in the books it appears that he has indeed made the right decision. The Spring featured a bonafide competition for the starting gig headlined by a number of transfers including Grant Gunnell (Arizona State) and Peter Parrish (LSU), along with returnee Keilon Brown and (Freshman) Seth Henigan (60.8%, 2,153 YDS, 9.5 Y/A, 16 TD, 4 INT), who would eventually earn the confidence of the coaching staff. Despite his lack of experience, Henigan has started all seven games in leading a potent attack that has produced 35.9 points per game (24th in FBS) on 487.3 total yards, including 307.6 through the air and a much-improved 179.7 on the ground, netting a healthy 7.0 yards per play. Like his predecessor before him, Henigan has exhibited sound decision-making for a passer of his age, while continuing to push the football downfield, averaging 9.5 yards per attempt. (Redshirt Freshman Tailback) Brandon Thomas (107 CAR, 642 YDS, 6.0 Y/A, 7 TD) has emerged as the top option in an experienced Backfield, while the diminutive (Senior Receiver) Calvin Austin (50 REC, 857 YDS, 17.1 Y/R, 8 TD) leads the American Athletic Conference in receptions (50), receiving yards (857), and touchdowns (8) after sitting atop the league in each of those respective categories a year ago. Despite utilizing a more balanced approach than in 2020, this unit as a whole has struggled in terms of execution, particularly in terms of taking care of the football; Memphis has committed eleven turnovers thus far, including an AAC-worst SEVEN lost fumbles, with multiple giveaways in four of their seven outings. With that said, the biggest concern with this team continues to be the play of their Defense, which left a lot to be desired last season and is once again a problem in 2021. The train of thought was that with nine starters returning from a group that yielded 27.9 points per game (3rd in AAC) on 434.3 total yards (8th in AAC) coupled with a full and proper offseason post-pandemic, that the Tigers would upgrade themselves on this side of the football, but with half of the campaign in the rearview that simply hasn’t been the case. (Defensive Coordinator) Mike MacIntyre’s troops have shown little (if any) improvement thus far, relinquishing 30.4 points (96th in FBS) on 426.6 total yards, with their biggest weakness being a complete lack of havoc plays. In an earlier post we introduced the concept of havoc plays, which include any play that results in a tackle for loss (including sacks), a turnover, or defended pass, and Memphis has produced such a play on just 13.9% of their opponents’ snaps. Furthermore, they have logged a scant THREE takeaways thus far, parlaying to a Minus-8 turnover differential, ranking towards the bottom of the conference, failing to register a takeaway in each of their last three contests. Turnovers and splash plays are by far and away the biggest factors in deciding who wins and loses these games, and while Silverfield’s charges have managed plenty on big plays on Offense, they have been akin to a dry well on Defense, with that turnover margin looming LARGE. Case in point; during their three-game losing streak prior to last weekend’s 35-17 victory over Navy, the Tigers committed seven turnovers in comparison to forcing only one, and when those three losses come by a combined margin of twelve points, you can see just how thin the margin between winning and losing really is. And speaking of narrow margins, when they last met UCF, a wild 50-49 victory at the Liberty Bowl last October, the affair was ultimately decided by a failed two-point conversion and missed extra point on behalf of the visitors despite the two sides accounting for a staggering NINETY-NINE points, 1,501 total yards (including 1,087 through the air), and SEVENTY-FIVE first downs. That victory snapped a four-game losing streak to the Knights dating back to 2017, including a pair of defeats in the AAC Championship Game. Expect fireworks from both sides, with their previous five meetings featuring an average total of 85.4 points, as only one encounter has seen either side held below thirty.
Meanwhile, UCF (3-3, 1-2 in AAC) is taking it one step further as they are in the midst of a new era of football in Orlando, hoping that it will be just as prosperous as the previous one was. Indeed, it had been quite a four-year run for the Knights, who from 2017 to 2020 had gone a remarkable 41-8 (.836), including an undefeated run in 2017. However, there were signs that the party was coming to an end as they closed the Josh Heupel administration on a 6-4 note, with the Head Coach off to greener pastures at Tennessee. Rather than promote from within, the school made a bold choice in hiring Gus Malzahn, who was fired after eight (mostly successful) seasons at Auburn. Malzahn went 68-35 (.660) with the Tigers (fifth on the school’s all-time win list), including 39-27 (.590) in the SEC, and just over three years after penning a lucrative seven-year, $49 million contract extension he was relieved of his duties via a whopping $21.45 million buyout, the largest in the history of college football. The 55-year old in turn reunites with Terry Mohajir, his former Athletic Director at Arkansas State, hoping to start a new chapter of his career away from the treacherous waters of the Southeastern Conference. While you won’t find anyone criticizing this move, there are concerns over what appears to be a lengthy transition from the previous regime to the current one, particularly when you consider the system that Malzahn is implementing on Offense. One of the more respected offensive minds in the game, he has long been an advocate of the hurry-up, no-huddle philosophy, with many programs across the country, and even some in the National Football League, adopting the strategies that he pioneered a decade ago. And here’s what makes this transition from Heupel to Malzahn so fascinating; Central Florida averaged 85.9 plays per game with an average of 19.1 seconds between them in 2020, both of which ranked first in the FBS, while Malzahn’s Tigers never averaged more than 73.1 plays. Granted, while there is a SIZEABLE difference in competition between the SEC and AAC, the point is that this roster shouldn’t be unfamiliar with the concept of running plays quickly, though they’re going to have to get comfortable enough with the new playbook in order to play in such a manner. Essentially, it’s like reading an instructional video to assemble an appliance in a different language, for while you may be familiar with the parts, you must learn the new language before completely understanding how to put it together. So with all that said, how has UCF performed thus far, you ask? Well, in all honesty it’s been very much a mixed bag. The Offense hasn’t been close to as explosive or prolific as it was under Heupel, but that’s to be expected given the personnel on hand and what has been undoubtedly a simplified version of Malzahn’s playbook. The Knights have averaged 34.2 points (31st in FBS) on 440.8 total yards, including 236.7 through the air and another 204.2 on the ground, all the while netting 6.3 yards per play. (Junior Quarterback) Dillion Gabriel (68.6%, 818 YDS, 8.0 Y/A, 9 TD, 3 INT), who thrived under the previous coaching staff en route to passing for over 3,500 yards in each of the past two seasons with a total of sixty-one touchdowns opposed to just eleven interceptions, appeared to take to the new system quickly before unfortunately breaking his collarbone in a 35-42 loss at Louisville back on September 17th. (Freshman Quarterback) Mikey Keene (62.1%, 568 YDS, 6.0 Y/A, 4 TD, 4 INT) has since carried on as the starter, though the team has lost two of his three starts, with the Offense tailing off dramatically. Consider this: Malzahn’s troops averaged 44.7 points on 554.7 total yards through the first three games with Dillion starting in comparison to just 23.7 points on 327.0 total yards in the three with Keene. Furthermore, the passing game has seen the most significant drop-off, netting 302.2 yards before that injury in contrast to a pedestrian 171.0 afterward. Furthermore, this is a unit that lost it’s top three receiving targets from a year ago, meaning that they were going to be relying heavily upon Gabriel’s experience to execute, and what you’re seeing is the difference between a veteran and inexperienced underclassman. Keene is fresh off of arguably his most disappointing showing season of the season as UCF was trounced 56-21 by (No. 2) Cincinnati, who relegated the Freshman to only 146 passing yards on 16-of-27 passing with a touchdown and two interceptions. As a team, the Knights could muster just 296 total yards on fourteen first downs, and with three turnovers on the afternoon their total on the season increased to nine. Look for this unit to shift it’s approach more to the ground game moving forward, with (Northwestern Transfer) Isaiah Bowser (64 CAR, 295 YDS, 4.6 Y/A, 6 TD) leading the way with 295 yards and six touchdowns on sixty-four carries, while (Auburn Transfer) Mark-Antony Richards (11 CAR, 84 YDS, 7.6 Y/A, 2 TD) should start seeing more reps given his familiarity with Malzahn’s system. Central Florida is going to have to step up on the defensive side of the football too, though it’s certainly been a learning process for a unit that is breaking in eight new starters, including the entire Secondary. With that said, they’ve outperformed their previous incarnation, allowing 384.2 total yards in comparison to a porous 491.8 a year ago, with their nine takeaways helping to compensate for their Offense. This group struggled with depth issues up front, but has received an injection of talent and muscle in the form of (2020 opt-out) Kalia Davis (17 TKL, 4.5 TFL, 1.0 SK), (Auburn Transfer) Big Kat Bryant (22 TKL, 3.5 TFL, 1.0 SK, 1 PD), and (Western Kentucky Transfer) Ricky Barber (8 TKL, 1.5 TFL, 1 PD), while (Freshman Edge-Rusher) Josh Celiscar (16 TKL, 3.5 TFL, 3.0 SK, 2 FR) has been disruptive. A bulked up line has really benefitted the coverage, for after allowing 299.2 passing yards (121st in FBS) on 8.5 yards per attempt (110th in FBS), they’ve relinquished a far more respectable 207.5 yards on 6.6 yards per pass.