One of the biggest games in the history of Memphis football kicks off Saturday – and America will be watching.
The University of Memphis Tigers take on conference rival Southern Methodist University in a nationally televised game on Nov. 2. A game with significant ramifications in the American Athletic Conference got kicked up a notch with the arrival of ESPN’s College GameDay, broadcasting from Beale Street earlier in the day.
Kickoff is at 6:30 p.m. central. This will be the first time ever that Tiger football will air on network television in prime time.
It is hard to imagine that less than 10 years ago, both the Tigers (2010) and the Mustangs (2014) each had one-win seasons. Coming into the game, SMU (8-0) is ranked No. 14 nationally, while Memphis comes in at No. 23 in the USA Today Coaches Poll. This is just the second time Memphis has hosted another ranked team.
This game has big implications. The winner will have a better chance of winning the Western Division of the AAC as well as an inside track to the AAC Championship itself. A berth to the Cotton Bowl may be at stake. Both teams are ranked, but the most important rankings comes out Tuesday, November 5, when the first college football playoff rankings are released. The winner of the game will be in the rankings the loser may be on the outside looking in.
It all sets the stage for a dramatic game. Here are some keys to look for:
Don’t let the hype get to you
“Control what you can control.”
That’s been something of a Tiger mantra this season. Campus is usually hectic during homecoming weekend, but the addition of College GameDay adds even more hype.
“Neither team is going to need a pregame speech,” said Tigers head football coach Mike Norvell, referring to the hype. “Whoever goes out and executes for 60 minutes and can block out the noise once the game starts, that will be the critical factor.”
Norvell won’t have to talk Tigers defensive back T.J. Carter down.
“I don’t get into all of the hype,” Carter said. “College Gameday is good and all, but at the end of the day, we are worried about going out there and playing a 60-minute game. We prepare for them like we would any other team.”
The Tigers will have to make sure they don’t spend all their emotional energy in the events leading up to kickoff and are drained by the time they hit the field. The players and coaches are saying the right things leading up to the game, but as the saying goes, that’s why they play the games.
Contain the Mustangs
Mustangs QB Shane Buechele, who transferred to SMU from Texas, has been great this season. He has thrown for 2,325 yards and 20 touchdowns with seven interceptions.
Missing from the SMU lineup may be the team’s leading receiver Reggie Roberson Jr. (803 yards and six touchdowns this season). Roberson is averaging 100.4 yards per game and 18.7 yards per catch.
Xavier Jones is the leading rusher for the Mustangs with 884 yards and 14 touchdowns. The Memphis defense has to do a better job of getting off of the field. In the second half against Tulsa, the Tigers were visibly winded late in the game. If the Tigers D can limit SMU on the clock it’ll give them time to catch their breath – and the Tigers offense time to work.
Gainwell and White must shine
SMU has among the worst pass defenses (11th, allowing 272.1 yards per game), but one of the best run defenses (2nd, allowing just 117.2 yards per game). Gainwell is just 21 yards shy of 1,000 rushing yards on the season.
Meanwhile, Tiger QB Brady White has been very effective since the Temple game. White has thrown for 277, 358 and 363 yards in his last three games.
Many defenses have used different methods to try to contain Gainwell. None have succeeded. The Tigers’ ground game sets up the passing game and vice versa. The Memphis offensive line did not allow a sack in the Temple game, but on the other hand, SMU’s defense has the most sacks in the AAC.