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Round Table: Last Train to Memphis

The crew previews the Knights’ last conference tilt with the Tigers

NCAA Football: Memphis at Central Florida
Mikey Keene warming up before last year’s game vs. Memphis
Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

It’s Round Table time once again as the UCF Knights face the Memphis Tigers for the final time as conference mates in The American. UCF comes in ranked #25 in the first CFP rankings, while Memphis defeated UCF the last time these two played in the Liberty Bowl.

Let’s get to it:

Is the QB situation a major concern now?

Jeff: I’d say so, but not a major concern. More of a moderate concern. I think we haven’t given Mikey Keene enough credit for the growth he exhibited over the spring and summer as he competed for the job. He’s still a much different player than JRP. He’s not as athletically gifted. But his improvements in accuracy and decision-making were on full display in that second half against Cincinnati.

I think the real takeaway here is UCF has depth at QB, unlike last season where, if Keene went down, there was almost nothing behind him.

Bryson: As of this moment, I don’t think so. Until Plumlee is cleared to play, this is Keene’s team. The thing I’m going to be looking for is how the QB (regardless if it's Plumlee or Keene) plays against Memphis. I see one of three possibilities, with two of the three being a cause for concern.

Possibility 1: Plumlee is cleared, starts, and plays well. If this happens, then there’s no concern. Plumlee is back and it’s his team.

Possibility 2: Plumlee isn’t cleared, and Keene starts and plays another quality game. If this happens, then we have a concern since Keene is showing consistency that Plumlee has not.

Possibility 3: Plumlee is cleared, starts, and plays badly. This is the worst-case scenario since we’ve now seen what Keene is capable of. The concern here is that UCF has a better quarterback on its roster, but is refusing to play him.

I think we’ll have a bit of a clearer picture of the QB Situation after this weekend, so I want to wait and see how it develops before labeling it a major concern.

Andrew: Head coach Gus Malzahn has been playing coy as to the status of John Rhys Plumlee. He said he has practiced but never specified how much he did practice, only that he did. Leaving him QB1 on the depth chart, aside from causing panic among fans, is a smart tactic as it forces Memphis to game plan for two quarterbacks who each play the game differently.

The truth is that concussions are tricky and unpredictable. The healing process varies from person to person and is based on the severity of the concussion. A minor concussion could heal quickly and the player no longer exhibits symptoms. However, there are players who struggle to shake off the effects and have to remain in a team's concussion protocol.

We know Malzahn wants to preserve Mikey Keene's redshirt, but he has to play someone. Keene has three more games to play while still keeping his red shirt, so while UCF will play Keene if needed, I expect Plumlee to start when he is ready.

Kyle: Define “tricky”. Perhaps for an opponent to prepare for UCF’s offense. The truth as UCF’s offense is concerned is that there is very little they can do with one quarterback that they can’t do with the other thanks to support in the other skill positions. It’s a matter of the chances of success of certain plays where the quarterback is more comfortable. Assuming the offensive line has overcome their early season struggles and can protect as they did last week (which we at the Black & Gold Banneret have cited as a hypothesis as to why Plumlee started in Week 1). Keene is more adept at passing with precision and Plumlee is better at improvisation and running. Without rehashing the uncertainty surrounding recovering from concussions, Malzahn has made enough wily moves and statements during the week to leave a cloud as to which field general is taking snaps under center.

As far as who actually plays, I don’t know what’s tricky. If Plumlee is healthy he goes, if he’s not, Keene plays and hopefully goes unscathed.

Are you more worried about the pass defense or more encouraged by the run defense?

Jeff: I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy, so I’m encouraged by the run defense. But there’s another good reason:

Defending the run well means you’re winning the line of scrimmage. That means you’re going to get pressure on the opposing passer, and that’s what has won UCF games this year. Yes, we’ve given up some big plays, but look at the losses: Against Louisville, the Cardinals ran the ball well, and against ECU, the Pirates essentially eschewed the run, for some reason.

I’ll take my chances with dominating upfront any day.

Bryson: Having a great run defense has been beneficial for UCF. However, if the pass defense is not up to snuff, then opponents can hit you with a big play, causing a shorter drive and shorter time for the Knights' defense to rest.

Andrew: Being good at one usually helps the other. The pass defense plays back, gives up a lot of yards, and does not create turnovers. With the run defense playing at a high level, it allows the defense to focus on the deficiencies of the pass defense. At the end of the Cincinnati game, they started to play tighter coverage. Will they continue? That is the question.

Kyle: It’s funny that after the SMU game, the defensive backs were the praise of all in the UCF kingdom and just a few weeks later, they're the scourge of what was once thought of as a historically great defense. That being said, so long as the defensive front keeps an offense one-dimensional by stopping the run and pressuring the backfield into mistakes. The defensive backs will have a greater chance of success if they are dealing with a quarterback under duress or are completely taken out of the equation in the case of a sack.

Why has this team struggled on the road under Gus?

Jeff: I think you have to take this question on a game-by-game basis (Bryson breaks them down well below). But they’re all different. Again, these aren’t excuses, but they are reasons.

Still, that’s why this game is so massive for UCF. Getting a win outside the state of Florida would be a major confidence booster for this group.

Bryson: It’s a combination of factors. Malzahn’s road losses have been to Louisville (a close game), Navy (Keene’s first start), Cincinnati (who went to the CFP), SMU (who was coached by Sonny Dykes), and East Carolina (where UCF had 3 turnovers).

Half of those losses were just against good teams that had the home-field advantage tilt their way. The offense was still getting used to Mikey Keene against Navy, and the ECU loss was a combination of good coaching by Mike Houston and UCF making unforced errors.

Moral of the Story: If the opponent looks to be on your level and UCF doesn’t have injuries to key players, don’t turn the ball over and it should be fine.

Andrew: UCF is a bit spoiled playing in a high-energy home stadium. As a result, they don't have many opportunities to create their own momentum without the crowd’s help. When you have in-state road games, you have enough of a fan presence that it doesn't help the team in learning how to create on their own. To compound it, you have a roster that has had a lot of personnel turnover, and not getting many real road tests doesn't help.

Kyle: There are a whole lot of factors, but the simplest is that the road has been where most of UCF’s tougher games have taken place. A 2021 Cincinnati team that made the College Football Playoff last year, a 2021 SMU team that was 5-1 at home, and a nail-biter in Louisville where there was a mash unit of Knights injuries including the starting quarterback by the end of the game, and a 2022 ECU team that was better than anyone gave them credit. The one “bad” loss on the road was 2021 against Navy where true freshman Mikey Keene has his first start over and above countless special teams miscues and injuries galore still impacting UCF from the aforementioned Louisville trip.

The only true cupcake game with no crazy extenuating circumstances was Temple which was domination of the highest order with a score of 49-7.

Tougher teams will likely be road games in the immediate future because where UCF is in its life cycle as a program moving to a new conference. They will be perceived as the lesser opponent the new guy while also having the added pressure of finding out-of-conference games that impress the CFP committee if they are attempting to vie for a National Championship.

Is UCF-Memphis a rivalry?

Jeff: No.

Bryson: While the record may not indicate it, I think so. It’s especially true in the case when Memphis has the home-field advantage. Of the time this matchup has been played in the Liberty Bowl, six of eight games were won by 10 points or less. I know I sure won’t miss them when the Knights move to the Big 12 next season.

Andrew: Why would it not be one? Do the teams and fans dislike each other? Yes? Then it's a rivalry. Just because the results have been mostly one-sided in terms of wins and losses doesn't change the animosity between the fan bases. When you flip the script to basketball with the other team having a favorable result, it adds to the rivalry. Kyle once wrote an article about this very topic a few years back on another site.

Kyle: While Jeff has mailed it in with an amazing one-word answer, the truth is that the opportunity was certainly there. For all the important and relevant games they played together, to ignore the possibility is to outright ignore history. Two Conference Championships and two one-point regular season games in 2017-2020 (they didn’t play in 2019) while the American Athletic Conference was rising in national prominence (which only eventually led to teams getting poached).

Perhaps I would have had a better case if Memphis’s starting quarterback didn’t miss the game in Orlando in 2021 and UCF has lost two straight in the series, but the facts of the case would not change that the Knights charging on to the Big 12 has caged a Tiger rivalry from taking place.

Being said, there’s a greater chance that one might be built in the future in football should the Memphis program continue to grow compared to the hapless Bulls of USF re-establishing proverbial hostilities down the line.

Any chance of a look-ahead situation just like ECU with Tulane on the schedule next week?

Jeff: You cannot rule it out. Memphis is in a similar situation as ECU was when we played them — middling around .500 but with a dangerous quarterback at home. UCF has a potential first-place matchup with Tulane in a week. My hope is we learned our lesson from Greenville, get out fast, and control the game. But if we get sloppy again and commit some turnovers, we might be in for a repeat performance.

Bryson: Hopefully the team learned its lesson about potentially looking ahead after the ECU loss. Fall for it once, shame on you. Fall for it twice, shame on me.

Andrew: I don't think the team was looking ahead. They had an offensive game plan that wasn't bad but was mired in mistakes and turnovers. The defensive game plan was one that ECU was able to adapt to and took advantage of UCF's soft pass coverage and neither did much to adjust. The coaching staff admitted to making mistakes on their end. Lesson learned. Sometimes, a loss is good for a team as a whole. I think the bad taste from the ECU game will help everyone not let that happen again.

Kyle: The ECU game didn’t happen because of looking ahead as much as it was offensive mistakes early shooting them in the foot. That being said, enough noise and backlash surrounding that has, for lack of a better word, embarrassed coach Malzahn. During Monday’s press conference he vowed that his players won’t be that unprepared on the road ever again.

Based on what I saw when he said it, I believe him.


Jeff: This one will be closer than we might prefer for a while, but we should pull away. 41-29 UCF.

Bryson: Most matchups in Memphis come down to the wire, and I think that stays true this season. UCF wins, 31-29

Andrew: UCF’s pass defense will be tested, but I have a hopeful view that the improved pass coverage we saw late in the game against Cincinnati was a taste of things to come. UCF 31-21.

Kyle: Barring another self-imposed collapse, UCF prevails 35-31.