The Liberty Bowl receives the honor of playing host to the first high-profile FBS college football game in the spotlight of the 2020 season as a pair of conference title hopefuls take the field when Arkansas State travels to play on Memphis.
While the mere presence of a nonconference game has become a bit of rarity in this virus-impacted season, the rivalry between these two teams is not. This will be the 59th meeting between Memphis and Arkansas State since the series began in 1914. Arkansas State has won four out of the last six, but the last meeting came in 2013 — the year before Memphis began to roll off double-digit win seasons every other year or so.
The Tigers are now on their third coach since that transformation took place under Justin Fuente, promoting Ryan Silverfield after the departure of Mike Norvell to Florida State. As a crucial piece of the offensive braintrust since Norvell was hired, Silverfield is tasked with maintaining that American Athletic Conference championship contention that has become the standard for Memphis football. After going 22-5 in conference play across the last three years and knowing that the league has switched to one division with the top two teams reaching the conference title game, anything short of defending their conference crown on the field in December is going to be a disappointment.
Arkansas State has its own conference title hopes this season and a desire to make a statement on the biggest stage yet in the college football season. Let’s take a closer look at what to expect and make a prediction against the spread.
Memphis: Arguably one of the most notable opt-outs of 2020 came at the 11th hour, when All-American Kenneth Gainwell decided to forego playing this year and begin his preparation for the 2021 NFL Draft. After a redshirt year in 2018, Gainwell burst onto the scene in 2019 as one of the top all-purpose players in the country, earning FWAA Freshman of the Year honors and bolstering expectations that the offense will remain explosive after Norvell’s exit. Gainwell’s decision has been met mostly with support rather than criticism after his father pointed out that four family members have died after contracting the virus.
But Memphis is not without stability in the backfield. Quarterback Brady White is back for a sixth year of college football after throwing for 4,000 yards and 33 touchdowns during Memphis’ 12-2 run in 2019. He’s going to be the most recognizable face for many fans interested in Memphis’ encore after playing in the New Years Six last season, but fans should keep an eye on senior wide receiver Damonte Coxie. With Gainwell and Antonio Gibson gone, Coxie is set to take over as the most productive skill position player in the offense. Depending on how things go this fall, he appears set to be the next Memphis skill player to hear his name called in the NFL Draft.
Arkansas State: The Red Wolves have gone 36-12 in Sun Belt play since coach Blake Anderson took over in 2014, winning two conference championships (2015, 2016) and a share of the West Division title in 2018. Still, there’s another step for the program under Anderson as the Red Wolves were an inaugural Sun Belt member when the league was founded but have yet to play in the recently launched Sun Belt Championship Game. Louisiana has bested Arkansas State the last two years to win the division and earn that spot in the conference title game, falling to Appalachian State on both occasions.
So Saturday night presents a great test for a program that wants to jump ahead of the Ragin’ Cajuns and get back to its championship-winning ways. If Arkansas State is going to pull off the upset, it will need its defense to step up in a big way to cause problems for White and the Tigers. The Red Wolves have a solid offensive line and one of the Sun Belt’s best wide receivers in senior Jonathan Adams, but a 20-point underdog needs to get some stops to close the gap. The big challenge for Arkansas State: can you keep Memphis under 30?
Date: Saturday, Sept. 5 | Time: 8 p.m. ET
Location: Liberty Bowl — Memphis, Tennessee
TV: ESPN | Live stream: fuboTV (Try for free)
Game prediction, picks
On the Cover 3 Podcast, I took the under as my Lock for this game on a matter of principle, because the sight of a 74 on the odds board is repulsive. But when pushed on how the game might end up under the total, I’ll quickly point to a defense that’s been overlooked and underrated heading into the season. The Tigers have a pair of difference makers on the defensive line in defensive end Joseph Dorceus and note tackle O’Bryan Goodson, and the group is now under the leadership of former Ole Miss defensive coordinator and Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre. The Rebels did go 4-8 last year but saw major improvements in scoring defense and rushing defense under the leadership of the former National Coach of the Year. Look for Memphis’ defense to dominate early before cruising to a 41-17 kind of win. Pick: Memphis (-19)