Just one month ago, it seemed unlikely that the Memphis Tigers, then a thoroughly mediocre 4-4, would be facing the mighty UCF Knights for the fourth time in two years.
And yet, after winning four in a row, here we are – the Memphis Tigers are American Athletic Conference West Champs, and will square off against their AAC rivals in Orlando on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. CST. The AAC championship is on the line.
In an earlier matchup this season, the Tigers lost to UCF 30-31, a game the team let slip away on national television. But on the back of last week’s impressive 52-31 victory over the Houston Cougars, Memphis will get a chance for a rematch with UCF.
Both teams were preseason picks for the AAC Championship Game; the Tigers just took the more difficult route. Last season, the Knights took home the championship with a 62-55 double OT win in Orlando.
Here are a couple of key storylines to watch as these two powerhouse programs square off once more:
Pray for sunshine. The Tigers are a different team when they do not have to play in the rain. Three of the four losses were played in the rain. The Tigers led late in three of the four games. So if the game is played in rain, the likelihood for the Tigers winning may drastically decrease.
Fortunately, game day weather forecast for Orlando is a high in the 80s with only a 20 percent chance for rain.
Run Baby Run!
The devastating duo of Darrell Henderson and Patrick Taylor Jr. has been too much for defenses to handle. When the Tigers commit to the running game, the team is very successful.
Against Houston, Memphis rushed for 401 yards. Henderson, who has fallen back to second in the nation in total rushing yards, had 178 rushing yards, and Taylor had 128 rushing yards.
Defensive lineman Joseph Dorceus is a 6’0” 277-pounder who sometimes plays fullback and lead blocker on short yardage plays. Dorceus is inserted in Head Coach Mike Norvell’s “Jumbo package” – a lineup that has produced great results for the Tigers and gets the rest of the team fired up.
Henderson has rushed for a season-high 1,699 yards and has a shot at rushing for 2,000 yards this season. If he can post a 301-yard game against UCF, he would be only the second running back in the Tigers’ history to achieve that feat.
Win or Lose, the Tigers win
Of course, the Tigers really want to beat the Knights for only the second time in the program’s history. But regardless of the outcome, the Tigers are already winners. Memphis has been getting constant national exposure lately, and the Memphis-UCF matchup has been among the most watched college games the past few seasons.
“It shows the excitement for these two football programs,” Norvell said. “People want to tune in to see good football. We take it as a great compliment that people are excited to see us play. It’s going to have wonderful numbers when it comes to viewership, and that helps everyone involved. It means more recruits and more fans get to watch our team play. We have another opportunity to represent our great city and what we do.”
New UCF quarterback, same problem
The Knights will be without Heisman candidate Mckenzie Milton for the rest of the season. Milton injured his leg in the season-ending game against South Florida. But since inserting freshman QB Darriel Mack Jr., The Knights haven’t missed a beat.
“He’s definitely a dual-threat, much like McKenzie,” Norvell said of Mack. “He can throw the ball far and it definitely jumps out of his hand. He may lack the experience being out there, but in essentially two games he’s played, you can see he lets the game come to him. They do a lot of different things offensively to put him in a good position.”
The 52-31 win over Houston for the AAC West Championship was a complete team effort. Six Tigers scored to secure the win – Darrell Henderson (2 TD), Patrick Taylor (2 TD), Sam Craft (1 TD), Tony Pollard (1 TD), Joey Magnifico (1 TD) and Riley Patterson (1 FG).
The Tigers have finally clicked as a team and the chemistry can be seen on and off the field. If the last two games are any indication of what to expect from Memphis, the AAC Championship game may be must-see-TV for even casual football fans.