HOUSTON, HELLO Higher ranked teams from higher profile conferences may lock horns at some point today, but the matchup between No. 21 Memphis and No. 24 Houston is the biggest American Athletic Conference contest to date this season – by far. Almost seems odd that the Cougars are the lowest of four ranked AAC teams and the only one of them that remains unbeaten. The Tigers got exposed, big time, by Navy last weekend, but does that actually help Houston’s cause or hurt it? On numbers alone, the home team would seem to be better. Though Memphis holds a paper-thin edge on offense, Houston blows away the visiting Tigers in defensive stats, the key one allowing 10 points less per game. Memphis QB Paxton Lynch was starting to get some Heisman hype floating his way a few weeks ago. Don’t be surprised if his counterpart today, Greg Ward Jr., gets some if the Cougars prevail and he plays well – which he always does. To wit, the junior is on pace for 2,800 yards passing and 1,100 yards rushing this season and 40 total touchdowns.
UPSET ALERT The “Spidey sense” is tingling a lot this morning in preparation for the day’s action. Frankly, it’s alarming that so many top teams’ games are giving yours truly the heebie-jeebies. How many? Try five involving those from 11 best, according to the College Football Playoff rankings. Those would be No. 3 Ohio State at Illinois, No. 5 Iowa hosting Minnesota, No. 7 Stanford hosting Oregon, No. 9 LSU hosting Arkansas and No. 11 Florida at South Carolina. Ohio State seems particularly dicey with all the silly drama surrounding the program and that the Illini have some talent, are at home and can smell bowl eligibility for the second year in a row.
STAT WATCH For all the warranted blathering on and on about LSU sophomore RB Leonard Fournette’s dominance and how he’d run away with the nation’s rushing title, he really hasn’t been the most impressive performance week in and week out. That honor goes to Penn State DE Carl Nassib, a former walk-on who leads the nation in sacks with 15.5 – which is 4.5 more than his nearest competitor, Maryland’s Yannick Ngakoue – by being incredibly consistent. As in, the Nittany Lions have played 10 games thus far, and he has at least one sack in each. Unreal.
SERIOUS COIN This week’s top dog for tickets, according to StubHub, is this afternoon’s affair in Starkville, Miss., where No. 2 Alabama visits No. 17 Mississippi State. The rates start at $254 per seat. Fairly far behind is the No. 12 at No. 6 Baylor contest, but that ain’t cheap, either, with tickets starting at $199. Third highest? Try Minnesota at No. 5 Iowa for $189. Just curious, who can afford these? Holy cow …
The last time Temple and South Florida, who play tonight in Tampa, Fla., squared off the two were still members of the Big East Conference. The Owls won, 37-28, on that October 2012 afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field as freshman LB Tyler Matakevich, shown here making one of his game-high 15 tackles, starred.
Temple’s What 2 Watch vs. South Florida No. 22 Owls (8-1, 5-0 AAC) vs. Bulls (5-4, 3-2 AAC) | Tampa, Florida RAYMOND JAMES STADIUM, TONIGHT, 7, CBSSN, 94.1 FM WIP
1. Grasp the stakes and the competition This is not the time to start looking ahead to Memphis. Yeah, next week’s encounter against what had been the AAC’s primary flag-carrier to the rest of the country will be a biggie, and hopefully draw a crowd worthy of being one. But the reality is, right here, right now, the Owls’ biggest threat to a division title, which is step one required to gaining a conference title, is South Florida, not Memphis. The Bulls currently stand two games behind the Owls in the AAC East standings, but that gap narrows considerably if they pull the upset, and it’d be a minor one at that (only a 2.5-point spread), and they’d hold the key tiebreaker of head-to-head going forward should the teams finish with the same AAC mark. Not for nothing, but USF is on a bit of a run at the moment, too, having won four of its last five – the lone misfire at Navy, which just knocked Memphis off its unbeaten perch in resounding fashion. In short, the Bulls are pretty good, they’re balanced and they’re fast. Owls better recognize.
2. Be ready to respond A painfully slow-starting team this season, Temple may as well just bank on having to rally in this one because the Bulls are just the opposite. They’ve gotten the jump on eight of their first nine opponents with the one anomaly being Game No. 2 at Florida State, during which USF fell behind but was tied at half 7-all before faltering in the second half. Of course, that script is quite familiar to Temple foes. You can get up on the Owls, just don’t bank on staying there. Only Notre Dame has survived the Cherry & White meat grinder this season, and it even had to rally from behind in the final four minutes to finish the deal. The danger, though, is in Temple possibly digging too deep a hole at some point. USF has an offense that moves the ball rather well, averaging almost 400 yards per game. If it starts cashing in with that real-estate collection better than normal (27.7 points per game), trouble likely would ensue for Matt Rhule’s bunch.
3. Get out of the trap In many ways, USF is a carbon copy of Temple … but just about half a year behind. Not a full year, because the Bulls seem about midway between the Owls’ stabilizing experience of 2014 and their coming-out party of 2015. Offensively, USF is powered by its feature RB, has a multi-talented QB who is somewhat underutilized and a primary WR who has some serious wheels. Kinda sounds a lot like Temple – with Marlon Mack, Quinton Flowers and Rodney Adams playing the roles of Jahad Thomas, P.J. Walker and Robby Anderson. All of their numbers are remarkably similar, with, following suit, the Bulls have slightly less. The concern here, though, remains that Temple relies far too heavily on Thomas and how that leaves it far too susceptible to a serious breakdown, not just for one week, but whatever is left of the season after that point. The junior is a good, quality back with knee-buckling moves, but he is not big enough to shoulder a season’s workload alone … and he has shown all the effects of wearing down for close to a month now as his production has dropped and his ailments have jumped. Rhule needs to tap into that passing game AND his depth at RB … a lot more now.
4. Unleash the beast Warning aside, the opinion here is that Temple has yet to play its best game. Heck, it hasn’t even strung together a solid four quarters in a single game this season. That’s not exactly a slap in the face to the Owls. What it is, is a statement that they are capable of far more than they have shown. Anyone thinking beforehand that Temple would have no chance hanging with Notre Dame and then afterward that it was a nice accomplishment that the Owls did … has absolutely no clue, not even the slightest idea of how much potential this team has. Walker, for one, is an insane talent. We’ve hardly seen the surface scratched this year in regard to that. Anderson and Ventell Bryant, if they could ever get over their issues with dropped passes, would put insane numbers, not just good ones. The talent behind Thomas? You guessed it, insane. How about really starting to use all the weapons at your disposal, Temple? Oh, and maybe dial up a few more blitzes for the defense, too. Perhaps even just drop altogether the passive-aggressive zone defense that yields so many yards before tightening up in the red zone – you know, the one that allowed ND to escape Philly with a victory.
5. Stay healthy Rhule and his staff have done a wonderful job in building a program along North Broad. Thing is, it would be in the program’s best interests, short-term and long-term, if it were able to start being, well, used … across the board. Think about it – right now, where would Temple be if, say, LB Tyler Matakevich went down? Or Thomas? Or Walker? Or DT Matt Ioannidis? Or any combo of them going down? The Owls’ O-line already has had to experience what it’s like without star C Kyle Friend for much of the ND game and all of last week’s win at Southern Methodist. Fortunately, it didn’t collapse. Might be a good idea for the Temple coaches to start using the backups and beyond a bit more to see what the future, even the immediate one, will hold. Most of all to give the current front-line guys a chance to recover and be a bit more fresh during this stretch drive of the regular season. Frankly, anything less than a double-digit win campaign, a berth in the AAC title game and a quality bowl would make 2015 a disappointment now. But the Owls, even nine games and eight victories in, still have a long way to go still before any of that can happen.