Three Thoughts on the AAC Championship


• For the third straight season, the Memphis Tigers will play on college football's biggest, most exclusive weekend. Seventy-eight teams will play in bowl games over the next five weeks. But only 20 get to play for a conference championship on the first Saturday in December. Aside from the New Year's Six, you can have "bowl season." I'll take the weekend all 10 FBS leagues decide a champion on the field. And for the first time, one of these games will be played here in Memphis, at the Liberty Bowl.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Bryce Huff

The Tigers celebrated their division title last Friday, clinched with the victory over Cincinnati. But it's the American Athletic Conference championship — to be decided on the field, against those same Bearcats — that would take the Memphis program a place it's never been before. Coach Mike Norvell made that clear in describing the minimalist approach to last week's celebration. "There have not been a ton of trophies lifted around here," said Norvell after his team's 11th win of the season (a program first). "Winning the West Division is pretty special. To represent where this program has grown, the foundation former players built . . . we want to celebrate it. But we're not done. We did what we're supposed to do. I want us to continue to grow. I want to see that hunger. We can talk about the 'three-peat' of winning the division, but we want to finish the journey."

• Championships are won, yes, with line play. When the Tigers score their first touchdown (or field goal) Saturday, they'll surpass 500 points for the fifth straight season. It's a scoring total the program never reached before the 2015 campaign. You could say Memphis has established not so much an offensive scheme, but an offensive system, the kind that rolls over, one generation of players to the next. But when I consider the strength of this year's Tiger offense, the record-breaking numbers of Brady White, Kenneth Gainwell, Antonio Gibson, and Damonte Coxie are merely the dressing. The meat of this juggernaut has been an offensive line as strong and stable as any the U of M has ever suited up. From left to right, they are Obinna Eze, Dylan Parham, Dustin Woodard (the senior center made his 50th start last Friday), Manuel Orona-Lopez, and Scottie Dill. Remarkably, this group has started all 12 games for Memphis, well-nigh impossible for a position tasked with creating collisions on every snap of every game. The unit will lose only Woodard at season's end, meaning the Tiger offense — the Tiger offensive system — is in a good place for 2020 and beyond.

• Back-to-back Bearcats . . . big deal. In each of the Tigers' previous two appearances in the AAC championship, they faced a team they'd played in the regular season (UCF). I don't see the proximity between the Tigers' regular-season game against Cincinnati with Saturday's championship to be all that significant. Sure, familiarity breeds contempt and all that, but this is football. One play from scrimmage is usually enough to breed contempt. After Friday's win, Coxie talked about talking, and the blocking he and his fellow Tiger receivers enjoy, and how much defenders don't enjoy it. "I like to get in [defensive backs'] heads," said Coxie, on the verge of his second-straight 1,000-yard season. "They don't like to be touched." He didn't sound like someone concerned about what this week's opponent heard — or felt — in last week's game.

The Tigers beat Cincinnati without playing their best football. They failed to capitalize (and score) on a pair of Bearcat turnovers. The Memphis defense allowed the Cincinnati offense to stay on the field too much (eight third-down conversions and one on fourth-down). Saturday's game will likely come down to which team plays better in the second half. And the cliche holds: Mistakes lose games (and championships). A team celebrated all season for its ability to execute a game plan — and minimize mistakes — will need to hold form in one more home game, with the prize likely a berth in the Cotton Bowl. Memphis football going places it's never been before. Again.

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