No team has come closer to ending the Central Florida Knights’ dominant streak of glory than this Memphis Tigers. The Tigers came up just short in a 31-30 defeat to the Knights earlier this season with a healthy McKenzie Milton in the opposing lineup.
The Memphis defense is undoubtedly licking its chops, hoping to brutalize the freshman quarterback and snatch the AAC championship and a repeat-undefeated season away from the Knights.
But college football odds-makers are not convinced that it’s going to happen.
Who: Memphis Tigers at Central Florida Golden Knights
When: Saturday, December 1st 3:30 PM EST
Where: Spectrum Stadium, Orlando, FL
Lines: Memphis (+3.5) at UCF (-3.5) / O/U Total: (70)
UCF was blindsided by the devastating right knee injury of heralded starting junior quarterback McKenzie Milton. Milton has been on a path to shatter school records with 8,683 career passing yards, 72 touchdowns, and a passing efficiency of 152.3. He is sure to come back stronger than ever in 2019 as he took his first steps in rehab over the weekend after the surgery last Saturday.
What remains is the AAC Championship Game in Orlando this Saturday…and a very young QB at the helm for a program that must recover psychologically in a week’s time.
Enter redshirt freshman QB Darriel Mack Jr. The swift and agile 6’3” 230 lb freshman is a more imposing threat in the running game than the lighter framed Milton, and steered the squad competently in last weekend’s rivalry win over South Florida.
But the ominous question mark is in the passing game. Mack Jr. went 12/20 for 69 yards in his lone start, a 37-10 win against AAC bottom-dweller East Carolina. Mack Jr. could be described as a late-bloomer at the quarterback position, a versatile player who scouts doubted would flourish as an FBS quarterback coming out of high school:
Big and strong — has a sturdy build and range as an athlete. Good height — built like a safety/OLB. Speed is more than adequate for the QB position, may not be ideal for a position change. He is a better runner than passer with quick feet, strength and agility as a runner and dual-threat…Mack is a good athlete and great looking player on the hoof. He is also a developmental player at QB that would be at his best in the spread or possibly moving to another position. Will likely be mostly coveted by in-state schools with some group of five programs from other regions involved as well.
Beware that that scouting report originally came from ESPN, a company that has always followed the beaten path when it comes to team and player analysis. Too many old scouts still think a gigantic passing arm is the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd most-important ingredient for a developing young QB. But recent FBS seasons have shown that there is more than 1 way for a signal-caller to succeed on the gridiron.
Milton’s backup (now the starter) was not very accurate through the air in his snaps against USF, but he managed the game and carried for 50+ yards in 10 tries. Give him 10 extra completions for 50+ yards instead, and his final passing stats would have been 15-of-24 for close to 150 yards. If he were a 1-dimensional pocket passer who put up those passing numbers while rescuing the team against a tough rival, would ESPN not be kissing his feet by now?
Luckily, Mack Jr. can rely on the speedy sophomore Greg McCrae who is averaging 9.0 yards per carry this season. The UCF defense is a near-elite unit that ranks 18th in scoring defense among FBS teams.
Memphis is not hurting at QB – literally or metaphorically. Junior graduate transfer Brady White has held down the fort for the Tiger offense with superb 157.8 passing efficiency. However, the bread and butter continues to be ground game, where Memphis has earned a spot among the top 5 rushing offenses in the nation.
The Tigers suffered from fatigue in the rainy mid-season home loss to UCF, blowing a substantial halftime lead. This time, we can expect Memphis to try to shorten the game behind elusive running back Darrell Henderson. The junior has gashed defenses from all angles, averaging 8.6 yards per carry and 19 touchdowns.
Meanwhile, dynamic 6’3 223 lb Patrick Taylor Jr. is a beast in the red zone with 14 rushing touchdowns. The Tiger offense can try to lull the Knights into tight coverage on the LOS while trying to corral a 2-headed monster in the backfield, then strike deep with wide receiver Damonte Coxie.
The Tiger defense may have dodged a bullet with Milton’s injury, however, as it is nowhere near the type of unit that Central Florida puts on the field. The Memphis defense has struggled to defend the pass. In a 2-game October stretch, the Tigers gave up about 800 passing yards, 7 passing touchdowns and 100+ total points to Missouri and East Carolina without once snagging any interceptions.
UCF’s defense is underrated thanks to the conference the Knights play in, and I’m thinking Mack Jr. will have a better game than some pundits expect. Still, I can’t help but think if the Tigers had held on in the rain when they had the Knights on the ropes last time, this would be a pick’em spread.
Yet if Milton hadn’t played in that one, UCF surely would have lost.
Take the dominant ground game of Memphis (and a pretty good starting QB) to cover (+3.5) and potentially end UCF’s streak once and for all.