Memphis, TN (CBSDFW)- The American Athletic Conference is getting prime-time treatment when #15 SMU faces #24 Memphis at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis, Tennessee, even if Saturday's college football slate is headlined by the SEC game of the week on CBS between #8 Florida and #6 Georgia.
The Mustangs are unbeaten this season and in the driver's seat for the Group of 5's bid to the New Year's Six bowl games. But the Tigers represent a major road block in the 'Stangs' quest for an undefeated season. The oddsmakers agree that this will be a tough challenge for the Mustangs, favoring the Tigers by 6.5 points as of this writing. That doubt is something that SMU is likely used to this year, as CBS Sports Network college football analyst Malik Zaire notes. He believes that doubt is part of what is fueling SMU this season.
"It's a program that many people probably doubted coming into the season, and I think they are riding on that a lot in terms of a motivating factor. Every team needs a motivating factor going into the season, whether it be real or not," said Zaire. "For them, a lot of people counted them out, and it is them just staying hot, playing well in all three phases of the game. When you have a motivated team that is playing well in all three phases, special teams, defense and offense, it's tough."
That motivation may have led the Mustangs to the 8-0 start, but Zaire says that quarterback play is what will determine this difficult matchup with the Tigers.
"The quarterback play is going to be huge, because this is going to come down to one or two possessions that can change the entire game," said Zaire. "This is not going to be a blowout. So it is going to come down to who is the more experienced and mature quarterback down the stretch and who is going to make the right plays on those third and fourth downs that they may need."
The quarterbacks, Shane Buechele for SMU and Brady White for Memphis, have posted similar numbers to this point. Buechele has completed 63 percent of his passes for over 2,300 yards with 20 touchdowns on the year. White has completed a higher percentage of passes (69%), but thrown for slightly fewer yards (2,161) and the same number of touchdowns (20).
The difference in this game will come, as Zaire points out, in converting third and fourth downs. SMU's defense has been one of the better units in the country in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert 32% of their third-down tries this year, while Memphis is more towards the middle of the pack, allowing a 38.3% conversion rate. Both offenses have been among the top 35 units in the country in converting on third down, with SMU at 28th (44.4%) and Memphis at 34th (43.6%).
In a related note, The Athletic's Max Olson has been tracking stop rate this season in college football. It's a simple rating that breaks down the percentage of opponents drives in which a defense forces a punt, turnover or turnover on downs. He also has been tracking 3-and-out rate, which is a measure of the percentage of opponents' drives in which a defense has forced a punt after just three plays.
SMU has been the better of these two defenses in both stop rate (70.8%) and three-and-out rate (34.2%). Memphis started out the year in the top 20 in the metric, but they have fallen back to the pack now, getting a stop on 68% of opponents' drives and forcing a three-and-out on 31%. Something to keep an eye on Saturday, when these teams meet. Kick off is set for 7:30 p.m. Eastern Time.
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