Know the opponent: Memphis Tigers

Nov 18, 2017; Memphis, TN, USA; Memphis Tigers quarterback Riley Ferguson (4) passes the ball against Southern Methodist Mustangs safety Mikial Onu (4) during the first half at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Iowa State is going to a bowl game for the first time since 2012 and it is returning to the place of its last appearance in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl in Memphis. This game was supposed to feature a Big 12 team versus an SEC team, but because of the lack of available bowl eligible teams in the SEC, the Liberty bowl was forced to pick from other available teams and wisely didn’t look too far, selecting hometown Memphis out of the American Athletic Conference.

The Memphis Tigers finished the season 10-2 with both of the losses coming on the road to AAC champion and undefeated UCF. The Tigers lost a thriller in the AAC Championship game to UCF 62-55 in double overtime on Saturday. Memphis features one of the most explosive offenses in the country and this matchup with Iowa State shapes up to be a wildly entertaining one.

A closer look at the Memphis Tigers

Memphis’ offense would fit in quite well in the Big 12. The Tigers wide-open, spread style is a chore to stop. They utilize great balance in the run and pass game to the tune of 550 yards per game (4th best, trailing only Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Louisville) and 47.7 points per game (2nd best in nation). tabs their offense as the 3rd most efficient in the country when factoring in possession numbers and strength of opponent. These guys are filthy good.

Much like the spread teams of the Big 12, Memphis uses spacing and pace to keep the defense on tilt. They are very balanced, throwing for 330 yards per game and running for over 200. They have perhaps the nation’s best speed receiver in Anthony Miller, a 5-foot-11 dynamo that has over 90 catches and 1400 yards in back-to-back seasons. Miller has done work against everybody he has played and is coming off a 14 catch, 195 yard, 3 touchdown output against UCF. Brian Peavy and the Iowa State secondary will have their hands full.

Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson is a good one. The former Tennessee Vol is a two year starter and transferred to Memphis from Coffeyville Community College in Kansas. Iowa State had significant interest in Ferguson as a JUCO in 2015, but he picked Memphis over the Cyclones. He has thrown for nearly 4,000 yards and has a 36/9 TD/INT ratio this season. Ferguson can make every throw and isn’t a bad athlete, but doesn’t run too often.

Memphis spreads you out with Miller and the other Tiger receivers and then runs it right at you with multiple backs. Sophomore back Darrell Henderson is averaging an astronomical 8.9 yards per carry and has run over 100 yards in 5 straight games. He has over 1150 yards rushing on the season. Patrick Taylor is the bigger back at 230 pounds and puts up a very good 5.7 yards per carry. As a team, Memphis averages 5.9 yards per carry, the 9th best mark in the country.

Granted, the American is not known as a defensive juggernaut of a conference, but Memphis has moved the ball on essentially everyone for two straight years under head coach Mike Norvell. Norvell is a hot name in coaching and has been linked to the Arkansas vacancy, which is a subplot to keep an eye on as the bowl game approaches.

Defensively, the Tigers are another story. They essentially have the old Hoiball motto of outscoring teams. Memphis is ranked 106th in defensive efficiency (Iowa State is 31st defensively.) The Tigers take a lot of chances and that leaves them exposed to huge plays. They give up an average of 475 yards per game, which is the 9th worst mark in the entire country. They are okay against the run, giving up 4.5 yards per carry. But the Tigers have been destroyed at times through the air, especially in their two losses, giving up almost 500 yards through the air against UCF on Saturday.

The Tigers have created 30 turnovers and rely on an aggressive to the point of reckless defense to get the back back for their offense. They are quite undisciplined at times and leave large avenues. The Tigers best defender is linebacker/defensive end Gerard Avery, who has 19.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. Memphis relies on blitzes to get pressure and they aren’t particularly good on 3rd down, allowing over 46 percent conversion.

Iowa State will have to remain patient and opportunistic because they should be able to find ways to move the ball and put up some points.

Memphis plays with an edge and is penalty prone, averaging over 9 penalties per game (3rd worst in nation) compared to Iowa State’s 4.5 per game.


From a pure football matchup, this is going to be a blast. Memphis gets into track meets and has enough offensive weapons to hang with anyone. They also are prone to giving up chunks of yardage. Expect Iowa State to try to control the clock and attack down the field with their big receivers against the smallish Tiger secondary. The Tigers thrive on creating chaos and Iowa State has thrived on consistent control.

Iowa State’s defense has been unbelievably good in most of October and November, while Memphis’ offense is as legit as it gets. I anticipate a thriller at the Liberty Bowl in front of a fantastic crowd, with what I would guess will be a 50/50 break down in fan support. The Cyclones will travel and there will be plenty of Cardinal and Gold to match the home standing blue and silver. The Tigers are undefeated at home this year and the Cyclones are 4-2 on the road (5-1 counting Kansas State, but you know…).

The game will kick at 11:30 Central and be nationally televised on ABC.