The 2022 season for the Memphis Tigers carries more weight, expectation, and pressure than usual. They’re staring down the barrel of the ever-changing modern college football world with a desperate plea not to be left behind.
With other AAC top programs in UCF, Houston, and Cinncinati all leaving the conference for the bright lights of the Big-12, the Tigers are hoping to follow suit in the coming years.
There’s no secret why programs are all vying for a place in a Power Five Conference. It’s where all the recruits and broadcast deals are going. But, soon, any school out with a Power-5 will be rendered obsolete and forgotten about.
The Memphis Tigers football program needs a successful year to catch the eye of a Power Five Conference. To avoid being left behind. And to stay ahead of the collegiate landscape. They’ll need to improve on last year’s 6-6 season. But to do so, they’ll have some real tough opponents to get through. So here’s a look at the top 5 toughest games for the Tigers this season.
5. At East Carolina (Oct. 15)
A failed two-point conversion was all that separated Memphis and East Carolina last season. A close game that entered overtime at 23-23 came down to a risky decision by Memphis Head coach Ryan Silverfield. After answering ECU’s touchdown in the first overtime period, Memphis opted to go for the win with a two-point conversion. However, a pass attempt from Seth Henigan broke up in the endzone and gave ECU the win. Memphis returns the favor this year by traveling to Carolina for the matchup.
They’ll see many of the same names that they saw last season. Holton Ahlers starts his fourth season as starting quarterback for the Pirates. His primary weapon, Tyler Snead, may be gone, but wide receiver CJ Johnson and tight end Ryan Jones are both on offense. Both of whom gouged the Memphis defense for big plays last year.
But the Memphis secondary should be better. Rodney Owens returns to safety, and Sylvonta Oliver will improve at cornerback. They’ll need to limit the ECU offense’s air raid attack to keep Memphis in the game, as moving the ball on this defense will be problematic. Potentially the AAC’s top linebacker, tandem Myles Berry and Xavier Smith will be the heart of ECU’s defense. In contrast, Juan Powell and Malik Fleming cover the secondary.
Seth Henigan will be more comfortable in the offense in his second year under center. And the Tigers will rely on him to have a good game against a stout and tough ECU defense. With tougher games on the schedule, Memphis cannot afford to come back from Carolina with a loss.
4. At Tulane (Oct. 22)
After traveling to ECU, Memphis continue on the road the following week against the Tulane Green Wave. Under head coach Willie Fritz, Tulane looked like a steady, consistent football team. With winning seasons and bowl game victories in both 2018 and 2019. 2020 also saw a somewhat successful season with an even record and a bowl berth.
But in 2021, Tulane uncharacteristically fell apart. They went 2-10, with their only wins against Morgan State and South Florida. But this isn’t a sign of decline for the Tulane football program. Willie Fritz is too good a coach for the Green Wave to have another disappointing season. His job depends on a bounce-back year, and unfortunately for the Memphis Tigers, they have a plethora of starters returning ready to do just that.
Nine of eleven starters return to the offense. Michael Pratt enters his Junior year and third year as a starter. He had difficulty with turnovers last year, but it wasn’t entirely his fault. Deuce Watts and Tyrick James are veteran receivers who need to do better to help their QB this year. And their offensive front needs to keep teams out of the backfield.
Tulane’spass defense was awful in 2021. And there has been nothing obvious in the offseason to show how it will improve. That’ll be the key for Memphis. Seth Henigan, or whoever the quarterback may be, should be able to stretch the field with Javon Ivory and Joseph Scates and take some chunk plays from this defense.
Memphis and Tulane have exchanged wins in their last five meetings, with the home team being the victor each time. Unfortunately, that stat doesn’t fit well for the Tigers, especially when Tulane is determined to right the wrongs of last season.
3. UCF (Nov. 5)
2022 will be the last time, at least for now, that Memphis and UCF collide in a conference game. UCF gets one last year in the AAC to use as a ‘tune-up’ year to iron out the creases and get set for life in the Big 12. Despite the overall series record being dominated 14-2 by UCF, five of the last seven meetings between the teams have been separated by a touchdown or less.
Memphis will have to limit their turnovers to get the last say before the Knights bow out the conference. In the 2021 showdown, Memphis turned the ball over four times in a close 24-7 loss. So the UCF offense that enters Memphis will be a familiar one for the Tigers’ defense. One in which they held to just 295 total yards in last year’s loss. But to repeat that defensive performance is a big ask.
Ryan O’Keefe, Isaiah Bowser, and Amari Johnson all return to the dynamic UCF offense. But with Dillon Gabriel transferring to Oklahoma in the summer, it will be either Ole Miss transferee John Rhys Plumlee or Miley Keene under center.
Memphis will have holes in their linebacker corps. Holes that Isiah Bowser will likely cut right through in a more devastating fashion than last season. Their defense also returns relatively intact. Davonte Brown, David Wilson, and Justin Hodges can shut down the Memphis passing game. At the same time, Keenan Hester and Ricky Barber will limit the rushing attack.
The Gus Malzahn era is truly underway in Central Florida, and he’ll be looking for an impressive season to gain momentum and recruitment power before entering the Big 12. But Memphis will be coming off a bye. The extra week of preparations could serve them well. The Tigers should also be motivated by having the eyes of the Big 12 on this game. A win could get the executives and decision-makers talking.
2. Houston (Oct. 7)
Last season the Memphis Tigers had their five-game winning streak over the Houston Cougars snapped in a disappointing 31-13 loss on the road. However, the Cougars took significant steps forward last season and played in the conference championship against Cinncinati. And now, this season, Houston is the front runner in the conference.
Head coach Dana Holgerson has a host of offensive talent returning this year. Including arguably the best pass-catch combo in the AAC in quarterback Clayton Tune and wide receiver Nathaniel Dell. Dell gutted the Tigers’ defense in their last meeting with seven grabs, 100 yards, and a touchdown. They now have even more talent around the receiving core in the way of transferees Cody Jackson, Samuel Brown, and Joseph Manjack. Nathaniel Dell is free to play primarily in the slot and cause the Tigers, defensive coordinator Matt Barnes headaches.
The Cougars’ defense that held Memphis to just 13 points, the second lowest of the season, is relatively similar this season. However, the defensive line is a total mismatch for the Tigers’ O-line. D’Anthony Jones and Derek Parish combined for 12 sacks last season, which will undoubtedly increase this year. While one of the AAC’s best defensive linemen, Nelson Ceaser, can have his way with either starting offensive tackles Jonah Gamble or Matt Dale.
Houston is ranked 25th in the coaches’ preseason poll. So their swan song in the AAC could be a huge one. One where they make a reasonable push for a New Year six bowl game. But if Memphis is seeking a move to a Power Five Conference, they best get used to facing teams like this every week.
1. At Mississippi State (Sept. 3)
A wild and controversial ending to their 2021 encounter brings a sense of repeat or revenge to the 2022 season opener for Memphis. The crazy finish to last season’s game no doubt left a sour taste in the mouth of Mike Leach and his Mississippi State Bulldogs. And that could spout a long night in Starkville, Mississippi, for the Tigers.
Mississippi State is in a very good place. Head coach Mike Leach has a veteran quarterback who can run his air-raid offense very well and a defense with more depth and talent than any other Mike Leach-coached team.
They’re a team who has grown up together. A few years ago, they were the young kids on the block in the SEC, and now they are challenging for a spot in the championship game… if a few results go their way. Will Rodgers will sling the ball all over this Memphis defense. There are too many weapons on the outside in Rara Thomas, Caleb Ducking, and Austin Williams. The Tigers simply cannot cover never them all.
And on the flip side, the entire defensive line for MSU is back. Plus, they get talented pass rusher Jordan Davis back, who missed all last season with a knee injury. The linebacker group is stacked too. Tyrus Wheat, Jett Johnson, and Nathaniel Watson are all multiple-year starters.
The bottom line is this MSU team can completely overwhelm the Tigers on both sides of the ball. Last year was a big upset, but make no mistakes; Mississippi State will be hungry for revenge. Memphis may have to respond with points on every possession that they are given. However, they have a solid track record of doing that in big games.
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