Remember the 2008 St. Petersburg Bowl? USF thrashed Memphis 41-14 in a game that we were all disappointed to watch, as the Bulls were the odds-on favorites to win the Big East that season. The bowl was the start of a long, long tailspin for Memphis that lasted all the way to 2014.
How the tables have turned since then. Memphis, in head coach Justin Fuente's third season, has quietly been the best team in the AAC this season. Aided in part by a schedule that avoids East Carolina and UCF, the Tigers currently stand at 7-3 with a 5-1 mark in conference play. All they have to do to guarantee themselves a share of an AAC title is to beat USF and UConn in their final two games.
As hard as it may be to believe, this is a team that's every bit as good as their record. Memphis is currently ranked 39th in F/+ (that's 81 spots ahead of USF, if you were morbidly curious), and played both UCLA and Ole Miss close in nonconference play. If it wasn't for a five-turnover disaster against Houston, the Tigers would be undefeated in the AAC and likely ranked, which is honestly a really frightening thought.
Anyway, Memphis boasts a pretty stingy defense-- they've allowed just 17.5 points per game, good for 8th in the nation-- and a balanced offense, which makes it challenging to key in one aspect of the Tigers' attack. You may remember the Tigers' 6'7" quarterback Paxton Lynch from last season as an inconsistent yet promising freshman passer, but he's made great strides in year two under Fuente and has been steady, if unspectacular under center, averaging upwards of of 230 passing yards a game with 12 touchdowns to six interceptions. He's supported by an impressive running game that features four running backs with over 200 yards on the year (!!) and is led by diminutive senior Brandon Hayes, who's tallied 651 yards on the season. Lynch can also run a bit himself, with eight touchdowns to his name. The Memphis offense is like a Solid Offensive Player Whac-a-mole-- when Lynch has had bad games, Hayes and the running game usually step up. When opponents stuff the running game, Lynch can usually do enough to carry the team. It's nothing spectacular, but combine it with an impressive defense that hasn't given up more than 20 points in over a month, and it's enough to get the job done.
Is there reason to believe USF could hang around in this game? Sure. The Tigers haven't exactly been dominant of late, getting outgained by Tulane in their last game (five Green Wave turnovers resulted in a rather misleading 38-7 blowout), and inching past Temple on the road and falling behind by double digits to Tulsa the two weeks before that. But the Bulls' problems likely won't stem from facing a particularly difficult opponent--though that certainly doesn't help-- they stem from within. With an unsettled quarterback situation, playcalling that borders on questionable, and injuries to a couple of key offensive players, USF will need to play significantly better than they have in recent weeks if they want to be competitive in this one. The line opened with Memphis as a 18.5 point favorite, and while that seems startlingly large at first, it's sadly an accurate representation of the gap between the two teams right now.
More than a few things have to go right for the Bulls to win this game, but it starts with A) letting Mike White start and B) letting him rip. White has not exactly lit up the statsheet this season, but he's clearly the Bulls' best option at quarterback (and, I might add, the fact that Willie Taggart either hasn't realized this or doesn't want to announce it is unsettling). With Memphis' strong defense and solid running game, this isn't a game where USF will be able to play ball control and escape with a win, so whoever wins the job is going to have to find some big plays in the passing game. I would suggest looking to Andre Davis early and often, especially with Rodney Adams projected to be out.
This team also needs to take some chances and spice up their offensive strategy. The spread option looks we saw for Quinton Flowers last week were a nice start, but it was essentially meaningless since the Bulls didn't present the slightest threat of throwing the ball. We can still take positives from that, though! If Taggart decides Flowers isn't the answer yet-- a fair decision-- he can't demote his uber-talented freshman to Hand the Ball Off to Marlon Mack Three Times Duty. Let's see some of the plays we saw in the SMU game: using motions and jet sweeps to get ballcarriers on the edge. Flowers isn't the solution at quarterback right now, but he can still be a huge asset to this team if he's used correctly. Unfortunately, we haven't seen any signs of that happening yet.