The biggest game in the American Athletic Conference was thought to be Thursday night’s scrap between Cincinnati and Memphis at the Liberty Bowl.
Make no mistake: It’s still a huge game with major conference ramifications. Due to the nature of the beast that is college football, however, the game isn’t quite the epic clash and surefire AAC championship game preview many expected over the summer. The nature of college football is tough. A season’s success (in the eyes of fans and the media) can go up in smoke just as easily in September as it can in December. That’s certainly the case for the two teams matched up in Thursday night’s contest.
The Tigers enter as the AAC West division favorites. Co-champions a year ago, with Cincinnati and UCF, Memphis boasts a high-powered offense which has carried the Tigers to a 3-0 mark. A weekend ago, when Bowling Green’s equally high-powered offense hung nearly 600 yards on the Tigers and led by 10 at halftime, that offense was forced to be great — but it was up to the task.
Memphis got a monster performance out of Paxton Lynch — 386 yards and 3 touchdowns — which set up Jake Elliot for the game-winning field goal kick. Survive and advance is usually a mantra for the Memphis basketball team in March, not the football team in September, but that’s what the Tigers had to do through their first three contests.
Cincinnati cannot say the same.
The Bearcats were shut down by the Temple defense in week two, essentially putting them in a two-game hole in the race for the AAC East. With the East division looking extremely poor behind Temple and Cincinnati, the Bearcats may have missed their best, and only, chance at even being in the Group of Five discussion. That one loss moved UC down the AAC totem pole behind Temple, Memphis, Houston, and perhaps even Navy. With the margin of error so slim, a loss in the league is a dagger to the heart. Sure, you can survive such a blow, but eventually it will catch up to you. Cincinnati needs Temple to lose twice to some combination of Tulane, the trainwreck that is Central Florida, East Carolina, SMU, Connecticut, and Memphis.
Matt Zemek wrote about the shallow pool of Group of Five contenders. With a win, Memphis can essentially knock Cincinnati out of that running. The Bearcats would need Temple to lose three times to even have a chance to compete for the league title. Memphis needs to keep pace with Navy and Houston, while also trying to get style points from the committee members presumably watching on national television. In Memphis’s case, winning by itself isn’t enough. Winning ugly may not be enough to get the Tigers ahead of Boise State and some of the MAC powers in the Group of Five pecking order.
The game is absolutely huge for Memphis because the Tigers have the biggest game in seemingly forever in the Liberty Bowl on October 17 against Ole Miss. Entering that game anything but undefeated would be a bit of a disappointment. More centrally and essentially, losing here to Cincinnati means that the Tigers would probably lose a second time when playing Ole Miss, which would likely derail their New Year’s Six bowl aspirations. Such is life on the razor’s edge.
No team has had turnover woes as severe as the ones endured by the Cincinnati Bearcats this season. Only Colorado State has turned the ball over the same large number: 11 times. The other factor to bring into this discussion is that Cincinnati has forced only 3 turnovers. When a team turns the ball over a lot while not forcing turnovers, it often finds itself in a heap of trouble. Over their last two contests, the Bearcats have found themselves in a world of hurt. Turnovers crushed Cincinnati against Temple. Four turnovers in the fourth quarter by quarterback Hayden Moore nearly cost Cincinnati a contest to lowly Miami University. Moore was able to pull off a great last drive to set up his own go-ahead score.
Moore was forced into action because Gunner Kiel received a cheap shot and left the game with an apparent shoulder injury. Tommy Tuberville has said there is a chance Kiel will play Thursday night, but Kiel’s status is questionable. This huge injury for the Cincinnati squad isn’t the only one it is dealing with. Starting cornerback and defensive leader Adrian Witty had ankle surgery and is probably lost for the season. Do-it-all defensive back Leviticus Payne did not play last week, nor did big-play receiver Mekale McKay. The only Bearcat highlight from the last meeting with Memphis was McKay hauling in an 80-yard bomb. The injury bug has bitten the Bearcats very hard.
The game itself should feature offensive fireworks. Cincinnati’s offense hasn’t been efficient but it has racked up the most first downs in the nation. Memphis is not far behind in third. Both offenses are great at converting third downs, UC ranking 4th and Memphis 7th nationally. The teams are 7th and 8th in total offense. Each team is in the top 20 in passing yards, and both are in the top 25 in rushing yards. The major difference comes down to turnovers and red-zone scoring. Memphis is one of a slew of teams that has converted every red zone opportunity, in this case 19, into points. Cincinnati is 16 of 21 in such opportunities, which ranks the Bearcats 107 out of 128 teams.
Memphis and Cincinnati share other similar traits, one being that their defenses have not been great. After both teams started the season with softballs, they have been gashed by real competition. Cincinnati’s issues seem a little more worrisome since its huge yards came against Temple and Miami, but Memphis gave up many, many yards to Kansas and many, many, many more to a stellar offense in Bowling Green. Neither team has been any good in the red zone. Memphis has given up 7 scores in 8 attempts, Cincinnati 10 scores in 11 attempts. The teams have the same problem with a lack of a pass rush and a lack of turnovers forced.
Paxton Lynch is going to be the most discussed player in this game; he is in the midst of a monster breakout season. The junior quarterback has completed nearly 77% of his passes for 818 yards with 6 touchdowns to 0 interceptions. Most of the yards and touchdowns have come over the last two games. Some regression is sure to come, but for now Lynch has been the breakout player in The American and the best quarterback in the league.
Gunner Kiel has had a bit of a disappointing start to his 2015 campaign. While the completion percentage is up, the yards sit at nearly 270 per game — there is something off. The Bearcats’ offense hasn’t hit the home-run plays it did last season. Kiel has been much more content taking what the defense gives him underneath. That’s not a bad thing at all, just different from what we saw a year ago. The decision making has drawn the ire of some Cincinnati fans, especially after Kiel’s 4-INT outing against Temple. (Kiel has also fumbled this season.) When added to Moore’s 4 turnovers against Miami, that’s 9 from the quarterbacks. Nothing deflates an offensive balloon like a quarterback who can’t protect the football.
The coaching matchup is one that’s very interesting as well. Tommy Tuberville’s biggest win at Cincinnati was?
Beating an average East Carolina team at home? Beating a bad Purdue team? Winning at Rutgers? Cincinnati has lost the games it was expected to lose, while also dropping disappointing games in the league. The Memphis game last season was a huge pillar for this house of cards.
Justin Fuente’s Memphis team hasn’t really had to deal with success, making this season a new one for the program. First off, the Tigers haven’t been 3-0 since 2004. Second, the Tigers’ accomplishments have been forged away from the Liberty Bowl. The last Memphis loss followed the Cincinnati game in 2014 — that was a home clunker to Houston. It almost seems better for Memphis if this game was in Cincinnati. There aren’t any signature home wins to be found under Fuente.
An offensive explosion seems like the most likely scenario in this game, and to be honest, it’s the best case scenario for the league. Perception is reality with the teams not on ESPN every week. If Memphis and Cincinnati put on a stinker, it will be held against them. The winner will get more of the benefit of the doubt, while the unfortunate loser will probably be buried in a sea of negativity.
Not performing when the lights are bright hasn’t been a problem for Cincinnati, which has produced some very entertaining Thursday night games over the last two seasons against East Carolina and Louisville. This is a season-altering game one way or another for UC. Either this is the game which stabilizes the Bearcats, or Cincinnati will be 2-2, looking at games against Miami and BYU that could leave the team 2-4. The line between huge victory and crushing defeat is expansive. It’s a pressure game.
This is new territory for the Memphis program. Not to be melodramatic, but it’s a defining moment. There is a chance to eliminate the chance that Memphis will have to play Cincinnati a second time (in the AAC’s first title game in December). There is a huge national stage for the Tigers for the first time in ages. There is buzz. There is hope. There are also expectations. Memphis is a 10-point favorite as this is written. The Tigers have the chance to make themselves relevant in the national discussion.
While it’s not extremely fair to say seasons are on the line in September, in this case…
seasons are on the line.
One team will crack, the other will turn into a diamond. It’s part of what makes college football great. It’s part of what makes college football unfair to the teams on the outside looking in. Memphis and Cincinnati prepare to walk into the flames, where dreams will be forged or will go up in smoke.