When the bowl pairings were announced, I took a look at the games that will be the most fun to watch. Most were predictable -- Ole Miss-TCU, Alabama-Ohio State, Mississippi State-Georgia Tech, Michigan State-Baylor.
One pre-Christmas bowl made the Watchability top 10, and it kicks off on Monday at 2 p.m. ET in Marlins Park (ESPN). Memphis and BYU play in the inaugural Miami Beach Bowl, and this game will serve as the de facto mid-major showcase (since we insist on calling BYU a mid-major). These teams are almost dead even in the F/+ rankings, with Memphis 40th and BYU 42nd.
Bronco Mendenhall is wrapping up his 10th season at BYU. He has won at least eight games in eight of them. (A win would give him at least nine wins for the sixth time.) Memphis has improved in each of Justin Fuente's three seasons, and Fuente just signed an extension. Granted, if a big school comes calling, Fuente's probably gone, but it appears he'll be building in Memphis for at least one more season.
Let's take a look.
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1. Who can use tempo effectively?
Both offenses want to use tempo. BYU ranks seventh in Adjusted Pace (defined here). Memphis ranks 20th. These aren't no-huddle, air-raid attacks, but if they move the chains, they're lining up quickly.
There's a problem: both offenses might be at disadvantages.
Memphis' offense ranks 71st in Off. F/+, while BYU's defense ranks 59th in Def. F/+.
BYU's offense ranks 36th, while Memphis' defense ranks 40th, but that top-40 ranking includes the first half of the season, before quarterback Taysom Hill was lost to injury. With Christian Stewart behind center, BYU did fine against bad defenses -- 8.1 yards per play against UNLV, 7.0 against California, etc. But against the only two top-40 defenses they've faced with Stewart (Def. F/+ No. 35 UCF, No. 26 Boise State), they averaged 4.4.
Tempo without first downs means you go three-and-out quickly. Both defenses hold advantages in success rate -- the offenses rank 35th (BYU) and 83rd (Memphis), while the defenses rank 13th (Memphis) and 41st (BYU).
While BYU didn't bring the same level of destruction to which we've become accustomed on defense, the Cougars could stuff Memphis' offense enough to win the field position battle that has been vital to Memphis' success. Three-and-outs could be as telling as points.
2. Can BYU's offense prevent havoc?
Memphis ranks 12th in the country in Front 7 Havoc Rate (defined here). Coordinator Barry Odom's defense lines up in a flexible 3-4 set designed to get as many strong athletes on the field as possible. The Tigers confuse opposing lines, with ends Martin Ifedi and Ricky Hunter (combined: 17 tackles for loss) creating chaos, AAC defensive player of the year Tank Jakes (15.5 TFLs, six sacks, four forced fumbles, four passes defensed) going nuclear, and middle linebacker Charles Harris cleaning up messes. This is a fun defense.
At a glance, Memphis' swarming front should have an advantage. The Cougars have enormous, experienced tackles in De'Ondre Wesley (6'7, 330, senior) and Ryker Mathews (6'6, 320, junior), but the interior of the line is young, starting two freshmen and a sophomore.
But freshman center Tejan Koroma was the Cougars' most consistent lineman, averaging five pancake blocks per game. And despite youth, BYU ranked 13th in Adjusted Line Yards and 17th in Opportunity Rate (both defined here).
BYU wants to pass, but the run will need to be enough of a threat to keep Jakes, Ifedi, Hunter, and company from pinning their ears back. If Stewart's pocket is clean, Mitch Mathews, Jordan Leslie, and the Cougar receivers could find opportunities against a Memphis secondary that is not spectacular.
Success might depend on young linemen holding up against one of the most active fronts they've seen.
3. Can Memphis make up the difference?
From a stat perspective, Memphis' defensive advantages are smaller than BYU's. That's been the case at times this year, but the Tigers' special teams have been good enough to make up the difference. Memphis ranks second in Special Teams F/+: third in punt return efficiency, fourth in punt efficiency, 20th in kickoff efficiency, 25th in kick return efficiency.
The result has been a staggering advantage in field position. The Tigers rank third in field position margin, with an average starting position 9.4 yards better than opponents'. Tilt the field, and opponents will falter running uphill. This formula works when seven of your 11 FBS opponents rank in the bottom half of the country on defense.
Against defenses ranked in the Def. F/+ top 70 (Ole Miss, Temple, UCLA, Tulane, Houston), the Tigers averaged 4.4 yards per play. (Against everybody else: 6.7.) BYU's defense isn't great, but it's in the top 70.
The Memphis offense is designed to protect the Memphis defense. The Tigers attempt balance on standard downs, combining a dose of running back Brandon Hayes (902 rushing yards) with quick passes to high-efficiency, low-explosiveness receivers -- top five targets Mose Frazier, Keiwone Malone, Tevin Jones, Roderick Proctor and tight end Alan Cross have combined for a 72 percent catch rate at just 12.0 yards per catch. While BYU is only decent up front, the Cougars are sound enough in the back to tackle well, prevent big plays, and force Memphis to dink and dunk for 60 minutes.
Without tons of offensive upside, Memphis has to stick to the script -- field position, first downs, big defensive plays -- to win games. The Tigers have done so beautifully in 2014; do they have enough firepower to do it against BYU?