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Why UCF Should Be Scared to Death of Memphis

Something Doesn't Feel Right About This Game

McKenzie Milton (Photo: Derek Warden)
McKenzie Milton (Photo: Derek Warden)

I've been thinking about this Memphis game and something just doesn't feel right to me. Maybe I still have PTSD from the Tigers coming within one end-of-regulation missed field goal of ending the Knights' dream season on the home field. Maybe it's the fear of being pointed and laughed at. Maybe Brian Murphy is right and I'm just paranoid.

But to quote Joseph Heller in his masterpiece, Catch-22, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you."

Even with the departure of their dynamic duo of QB Riley Ferguson and WR Anthony Miller, the Tigers are a dangerous team. Yes, they've lost two games in The American - at Navy 22-21 and at Tulane 40-24 - but a wounded cat is a deadly one indeed. And after the bitter ending of the AAC Championship last year, Memphis would like nothing more than to exact revenge on UCF by ending their 18-game winning streak.

This is their Super Bowl, and they can make up for those two slip-ups by de-railing UCF's season inside a packed Liberty Bowl before a national TV audience on ABC.

Call it a trap game, or a setup, or whatever. It won't be easy.

OddsShark's analysis of the game didn't help. While they install UCF as a 4.5-point favorite, their score predictor has Memphis winning the game. Even worse from my perspective, 70% of the money is on UCF, and as we all know, sometimes it pays to go against the public. The fact that UCF is 1-4 against the number in its last five games at Memphis doesn't help either.

UCF leads the series 11-1. Memphis' lone win came in 1990, the first time these two schools met, but since rekindling the series in Conference USA in 2005, UCF has won 11 in a row. So clearly, Memphis is due.

So let's break this matchup down a bit to see if we can find evidence of what I'm worried about.

I highlighted the categories where one team has a one-quartile-or-greater advantage over the other's respective unit (a quartile being 1/4th of the 129 FBS teams, so those ranked 1-32 in a given category are in the first quartile, 33-64 in the second, 65-96 in the third and 97-129 in the fourth).

Memphis Offense vs. UCF Defense

TEAM Memphis Offense UCF Defense
CATEGORY Total FBS Rank Total FBS Rank
Total Yards/Game 547.2 6th 356.4 47th
Rush Yards/Game 274.5 8th 181.8 90th
Pass Yards/Game 272.7 31st 174.6 17th
Pass Efficiency 177.19 9th 103.76 13th
Points/Game 46.2 11th 17.4 19th
3rd Down % 50.8% 9th 38.8% 73rd
Red Zone % 95.2% 14th 76.9% 36th (tie)

Memphis' offense is one of the best in the nation by any measure, but they have a decided advantage over UCF's defense in the run game, as well as on third downs.

Now let's see how UCF's offense stacks up against Memphis' defense,

UCF Offense vs. Memphis Defense

TEAM UCF Offense Memphis Defense
CATEGORY Total FBS Rank Total FBS Rank
Total Yards/Game 574.4 3rd 348.7 38th
Rush Yards/Game 269.4 10th 172.3 80th
Pass Yards/Game 305.0 18th 176.3 21st
Pass Efficiency 153.11 29th 120.71 40th
Points/Game 48.6 7th 24.5 52nd
3rd Down % 59.1% 2nd 43.2% 107th
Red Zone % 88.9% 37th 85.0% 71st (tie)

Not too bad. UCF has an advantage in six of the seven categories listed, with the biggest advantages in the running game as well (!) and on third down.

Now for the hustle stats:

TEAM Memphis UCF
CATEGORY Total FBS Rank Total FBS Rank
Turnover Margin +0.67/game 28th (tie) +1.40/game 8th
Penalties/Gm. 6.5 66th (tie) 6.6 72nd
Penalty Yds/Gm. 52.67 53rd 64.6 85th
Time of Poss. 25:17/game 126th 26:04/game 121st

UCF has the clear advantage in the turnover department, even with a rather pedestrian performance by McKenzie Milton against South Carolina State factoring in. But the Knights are also game to commit some costly penalties, as they give up about 12 more yards a game on flags while committing about the same number of penalties each time out as Memphis.

So we can infer from this breakdown that the team that runs the ball successfully will likely win. Both teams run up-tempo offenses (hence the time of possession numbers), but this won't be a study in trench warfare. It will be about which squad's offense puts the other's defense off balance. And if there's one thing Memphis' star back Darrell Henderson knows how to do, it's how to keep people off balance:

And that's what scares me. Memphis is a mirror image of UCF. They may not have the experience the Knights do, but their scheme and talent are certainly formidable. Couple that with this being UCF's first real road test under Josh Heupel (no, UConn doesn't count), and the script for the disaster movie is there on the shelf.

My lone consolation is the fact that Heupel has not put too much of his cards on tape in the first five games. UCF has been up early enough on their opponents where they haven't had to empty the playbook, nor have they had to rely on McKenzie Milton to drive them down the field with the game on the line, as he had to in the previous meeting (with mixed results).

But UCF might need to break the glass in case of emergency here.

Now, I grant this might all be some sort of emotional priming. I've seen a 17-game losing streak and an 18-game winning streak, after all. When you're part of the old Citrus Bowl crowd, you learn not to get too high. I really do believe I'll be wrong. I hope I'm wrong. In fact, I will never be more happy to be wrong.

But with UCF facing a ticked-off Memphis team on their field on a national stage, and knowing that nothing lasts forever (especially winning streaks), I cannot escape this thought:

We might be ripe for the picking.