In probably an elimination game for a New Year’s Six bowl, the defense of Houston could be the deciding factor over Memphis Saturday in a matchup of two of four ranked AAC teams.
In essentially a de facto elimination game for a New Year’s Six bowl, the better defense may decide the outcome Saturday night in a matchup of two of the four AAC teams that are ranked in the latest College Football Playoff Rankings when the Memphis Tigers (8-1, 4-4-1 ATS), who come off of their first loss of the season, visit the still undefeated Houston Cougars (9-0, 6-3 ATS) at TDECU Stadium in Houston, TX at 7:00 ET in a game televised nationally on ESPN2.
The point spread at Pinnacle Sports has Houston as a decided home favorite for this contest with the current line at -7 with odds of -108.
Nearly a Beaten of the Unbeatens
This epic AAC battle came within one week of being a matchup of unbeaten teams, but Navy had other ideas as it went into Memphis last week and ruined the Tigers’ perfect season with a 45-20 upset. And thus the Midshipmen joined these two combatants as well as Temple as the fourth AAC team in the latest Playoff Rankings and it now looks like whoever emerges as the conference champion will be the Group of 5 participant in a New Year’s Six bowl.
Houston meanwhile did remain perfect as the winning college football pick in all nine games this season by nipping Cincinnati 33-30 last week. That contest marked the first time all year that the Cougars were out-gained in any game as the defense did not nearly play up to its usual standards allowing a whopping 589 total yards. That could have been attributable to already having one eye on this marquee contest though, so we expect a return to normalcy here.
Offenses are Closer than Some Think
Memphis has gotten by far the most national exposure between these two teams, thanks to boasting one of the best offenses in the country and a quarterback that already seems NFL ready in Paxton Lynch. The Tigers are sixth in the country in scoring with their 44.8 points per game and seventh in total offense with 536.7 yards per contest, with Lynch leading a ninth ranked passing offense averaging 352.1 yards.
The 20 points scored in the loss to Navy last week was easily a season-low for Memphis, but much of that had to do with the defense being unable to get off the field vs. the triple option of the Midshipmen, who possessed the ball for 37 minutes vs. only 23 minutes for the Tigers, with Memphis still managing 438 total yards in its limited possessions.
However, with much less fanfare, Houston is ranked right there with the Tigers offensively as the Cougars are eighth in scoring with 44.4 points per game and 10th in total offense at 525.8 yards. However, the Houston success comes in a totally different manner with a legitimate dual threat quarterback in Greg Ward, Jr. as the Cougars are seventh in the land with 273.8 rushing yards per game.
So while Houston may not run the triple option like Navy does, Memphis must now contend with another running quarterback except that Ward is not a bad passer either with the Cougars ranking a respectable 40th in passing too at 252.0 yards per encounter through the air.
Houston Clearly Superior on Defense
But while these teams are very close offensively, albeit while using different styles, the Cougars are the clearly superior defensive team and therein lies the key to this contest. Even with that Cincinnati debacle last week, Houston is still allowing just 18.7 points and 367.6 yards per game, and as great as the Memphis offense is, it is mostly a one dimensional pro style passing attack that may be easier for Houston to defend than the more diverse Cincinnati offense.
And remember that the Houston defense was probably the last defense to hold the Tigers’ offense relatively in check, holding Memphis to just 368 total yards in a 28-24 upset win last year with Lynch passing for an ordinary 243 yards and tossing three interceptions. To put that last stat in perspective, Lynch has thrown just two interceptions all of this season!
Meanwhile, the struggles of the Memphis defense vs. Navy were nothing new with the Tigers ranking just 81st in the land in points against (28.7) and 99th in total defense (437.2), and the last thing the Tigers wanted to see following the Navy loss was another mobile quarterback in Ward that is also a better passer than Navy’s Keenan Reynolds.
Finally, the favored Cougars have won the last five head-to-head meetings between these two schools and they have gone 4-0 ATS in the last four matchups, including the upset win on the road at Memphis last year, which had stood as the last loss for the Tigers until the defeat to Navy last week with a 15-game winning streak in between.
While we have a lot of respect for what Memphis has done since Coach Justin Fuente arrived, like the old adage says, “Defense wins championships,” and we feel that the much better Houston defense will propel the Cougars to a victory by more than a touchdown on ESPN2 Saturday night.
College Football Pick: Houston -7 (-108)