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The Big USF vs. Memphis Preview

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After a bye week to recharge and get healthy (well, as healthy as you can be in November), the Bulls jump back into the title race with a critical road trip.

NCAA Football: Memphis at Navy Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Tommy West’s speech after being fired as Memphis coach in 2009 may have woken up the Tigers’ football fan base, but it wasn’t until shiftless athletic director R.C. Johnson was also removed in 2011 that Memphis football began to shake off its doldrums. Justin Fuente took over in 2012 and spent four years revitalizing the program. He shared the American conference title in 2014 and scored a convincing win over Ole Miss last season, leading them to their highest poll ranking in school history.

When Fuente was justly rewarded with the Virginia Tech job, 35-year-old Mike Norvell took over. Norvell, who had a glorious set of cornrows when he played at Central Arkansas, spent most of his career as Todd Graham’s right-hand man at his various coaching stops. A little dropoff was expected in Norvell’s first year and this team isn’t quite as good as it was in 2015, but Memphis still has a lot of talent and an explosive offense, making for a very dangerous opponent.

Peripherals

Team S&P+ (Overall) S&P+ (USF O vs. Memphis D) S&P+ (Memphis O vs. USF D) S&P+ (ST)
USF 33 6 99 27
Memphis 55 54 68 1

USF dropped off because the computers didn’t like Navy (and still don’t), but they picked some ground back up during their bye week. You know all about the Bulls’ strengths and weaknesses so I won’t waste time on that.

Memphis’s offense and defense are decent, but they really shine on special teams. Jake Elliott is one of the best kickers in the country, Spencer Smith averages almost 46 yards per punt, and they’ve returned three kickoffs for touchdowns this year. Not a good week to be missing Emilio Nadelman, who was vastly improved on kickoffs this season.

When Memphis Runs...

Team Rushing S&P+ Run Efficiency Run Explosiveness
Memphis Offense 104 114 11
USF Defense 93 92 29

Memphis’s running game is strange. Overall it’s not good and they’re very inefficient, yet they seem to dial up a huge run or two every week. Leading rusher Doroland Dorceus, Darrell Henderson, and Patrick Taylor Jr. all have runs of at least 45 yards this season. USF had two weeks to try and shore up its dismal run defense, but if the Tigers can run the ball consistently and still have that big-play ability, that’s going to be a problem.

When Memphis Passes...

Team Passing S&P+ Pass Efficiency Pass Explosiveness
Memphis Offense 41 42 45
USF Defense 53 61 46

The Tigers have a dynamic and consistent passing attack led by Riley Ferguson, a highly-touted junior college transfer in his first year in Memphis. He’s taken every meaningful snap this season and is on pace to throw for over 3,700 yards and 30 touchdowns. Top receiver Anthony Miller is in top form, with 25 catches for 486 yards and five touchdowns in his last three games. After watching Navy’s big receivers post up on USF defenders two weeks ago and come down with virtually every 50/50 ball, Memphis may try and do the same with 6’3” Phil Mayhew and 6’2” Daniel Hurd. Overall, it’s just an okay matchup for the Bulls. Memphis will probably have some success like they do against everyone.

When USF Runs...

Team Rushing S&P+ Run Efficiency Run Explosiveness
USF Offense 7 17 6
Memphis Defense 96 100 47

Needless to say this is a tremendous matchup for USF. Quinton Flowers, Marlon Mack, and D’Ernest Johnson should be able to run wild on this defense. It’s such a good matchup that if it bears out on the field like it does on paper, perhaps the Bulls will use it to shorten the game and protect their defense. They did that in the second half against Navy to limit the Midshipmen’s chances of getting back in the game, and it may serve them well again.

Five of Memphis’s seven leading tacklers are defensive backs. That should tell you something.

When USF Passes...

Team Passing S&P+ Pass Efficiency Pass Explosiveness
USF Offense 50 47 5
Memphis Defense 73 93 25

Memphis doesn’t have a very good pass defense, either, and strangely enough it gets much worse when opponents need to pass. On passing downs, they rank #101 in S&P and #118 in pass explosiveness. Flowers could hit some deep shots on this defense if they need a big play, but they may not need any in the passing game if their huge advantage in the run game translates to the field.

Summary and Prediction

Your guess is as good as mine here. USF has some compelling matchups, but as we’ve seen against teams like UConn and East Carolina, even poor running teams like Memphis can have success against the Bulls’ defense. Add in their solid passing game and elite special teams, and the Tigers could easily find a way to win this game.

USF won’t just be able to out-talent Memphis and win. They’ll need to execute in all three phases of the game if they want to keep their division and conference title hopes alive, because the Tigers can zap them at any time. I think the extra week of preparation and rest that Memphis did not have will help carry USF through in the end. But it could be a high-scoring, back-and-forth game with a lot of drama and a nail-biting ending. We all wanted another one of those this week, right?

USF 45, Memphis 38