It’ll be an intriguing catfight in this year’s Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic as the no. 17 Memphis Tigers, champions of the AAC, take on the no. 10 Penn State Nittany Lions of the Big Ten. Kickoff is scheduled for noon EST on Saturday, December 28 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The game will be televised on ESPN.
Oddsmakers list Penn State as 6.5-point favorites with an over/under of 60.5 points. Click here to check out a full bowl schedule and betting odds for every game.
Memphis is hoping to cap off a near-perfect season the right way. After falling short in the AAC Championship Game the past two seasons, the Tigers finally got over the hump. Memphis had to beat Cincinnati the last week of the regular season to get into the AAC title game and then beat the Bearcats again the following week to win the conference championship. At 12-1, the Tigers managed to beat out both Boise State and Appalachian State to be the Group of Five representative in the New Year’s Six bowls.
Of course, Memphis lost head coach Mike Norvell after the season. Norvell left the Tigers to take the coaching job at Florida State. Offensive line coach Ryan Silverfield has been named Norvell’s replacement, which should help the Tigers avoid too much upheaval heading into the Cotton Bowl. However, the Tigers have lost four consecutive bowl games and are just 3-7 in bowl games overall since 2003.
As for the Nittany Lions, they will be pleased to once again be playing in a New Year’s Six bowl. Penn State was a top-10 team for most of the season. However, losses to Minnesota and their old nemesis Ohio State foiled their season and kept them from reaching the Big Ten Championship Game. Nevertheless, the Nittany Lions put together an impressive 10-2 season that included six wins over bowl-eligible teams.
James Franklin now leads Penn State into a bowl game for the sixth straight year since the program’s NCAA-sanctioned hiatus. Of course, Franklin is just 2-3 in his previous bowl games with the Nittany Lions, including a disappointing Citrus Bowl loss to Kentucky last year. That loss should make Penn State eager to end this year on a winning note, especially against a team outside the power conferences.
I want to say right off the bat that I respect the season Memphis has had. However, there are reasons why the Group of Five conferences aren’t on the same level as the power conferences. There is a gap between mid-major conference champs like Memphis and programs like Penn State. A 6.5-point spread isn’t enough for me to take a chance on the Tigers. I’ll lay down the points and take the Nittany Lions to cover.
The Penn State defense is one of the biggest reasons I like the Nittany Lions to win this game comfortably. The PSU defense gave up an average of 14 points per game against a schedule that included eight bowl teams. Minnesota was the only team to eclipse 30 points against the Nittany Lions while even Ohio State only managed 28 against the Nittany Lions. I’m not saying they’ll be able to shut out Memphis. But the Tigers aren’t going to slice and dice through the PSU defense the way they do in the AAC most weeks.
Specifically, the Nittany Lions have one of the best rush defenses in the country. Even elite rushing teams were held in check on the ground against Penn State. That could spell trouble for Memphis, who is accustomed to gashing teams on the ground with freshman running back Kenneth Gainwell. He gained less than four yards per carry over the two games against a good Cincinnati defense, and it’s hard to imagine him doing much better against the Penn State defense.
Of course, Memphis quarterback Brady White is also capable of putting up big numbers. He averaged close to 10 yards per pass attempt during the season while amassing 33 touchdown passes. But when the competition level went up a notch against Cincinnati late in the year, his completion percentage dropped considerably. Facing Penn State will be even more difficult, especially if the Tigers don’t have their potent rushing attack clicking.
On the other side of the ball, I also have some concerns about the Memphis defense. The Tigers gave up over 20 points in nine of their 13 games, which is a concern considering the strength of their schedule in the AAC. For the record, I don’t expect the Memphis defense to get pushed off the ball on every play. They’ll be able to hold their own to some extent. But the Nittany Lions have better quarterback play and better athletes than what Memphis faced in the AAC, even against the likes of SMU and Cincinnati. I’m not sure the Tigers will be able to hold up for 60 minutes on that side of the ball.
For what it’s worth, this should be an entertaining game with both teams scoring plenty of points. However, Penn State is far more capable of getting stops on defense than Memphis. At some point, I like the Nittany Lions to find a little separation, allowing them to win by at least a touchdown and cover the spread.