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Around the SEC (Bonus!): Memphis

Editor’s note: Memphis takes us to part nine of a 16-part series, examining every team in the SEC, plus three bonuses, correlating with the three FBS Ole Miss non-conference games. We’ll preview one school nearly every day, alphabetically, until all 16 are completed. Yesterday, we previewed LSU. Today, the Memphis Tigers. For each of the schools in the series, see the bottom of the article.   

2018 Season Overview: 
8-6 (5-3 in the American Athletic Conference), Lost 34-37 to Wake Forest in the Birmingham Bowl

The Big Three: 
Brady White, QB, RB
Patrick Taylor Jr., RB
Bryce Huff, DE

The Around the SEC series has brought us to the second non-SEC game on the Ole Miss schedule. There’s a very good argument that the first game of the year, traveling to the Liberty Bowl to play Memphis, is the most important game on the 2019 Ole Miss football schedule. Ole Miss leads the all-time series against Memphis 49-11-2 and have won seven of the last eight meetings, but this iteration of the rivalry sets the tone for the 2019 Rebel season.

Opening the season against the Tigers, it’ll be the first look the nation has at the new-look Rebels with offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez and defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre – and they don’t get a cake first game to show their hand.

Memphis will particularly challenge the Ole Miss defense. A year ago, the Tigers ranked as the nation’s No. 14 offense in efficiency metrics. Yes, they lost one of the nation’s best college running backs from a year ago, but his backup was pretty good in his own right. Darrell Henderson, a Batesville native, was a third-round pick of the Los Angeles Rams after rushing for 1,900 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2018. But that said, it was a two-man backfield a year ago. Henderson was the guy, and more efficient than Patrick Taylor Jr., who will start at running back in 2019. However, Taylor himself carried the ball for over 1,100 yards and 16 touchdowns last year as a junior.

In addition to bringing back Taylor, the Tigers also return their starting quarterback and top receiving option. Brady White, a grad transfer from Arizona State, is entering his second year of eligibility at Memphis, coming off a season where he threw for nearly 3,300 yards with a 26-9 touchdown-to-interception ratio. The Tigers may lose a little bit in the drop-off from Henderson to Taylor, but it’s easy to imagine White being even better in his second year at Memphis. Helping out White and the passing game is the return of his top receiving option from a year ago, junior Damonte Coxie. Last year, as a sophomore, Coxie lead the team with 72 receptions, totaling over 1,100 yards and seven touchdowns.

Like Ole Miss, where the Tigers struggled a year ago was on the defensive side of the ball. They boasted the No. 14 offense, but defensively they ranked just No. 87 in efficiency. Ole Miss was No. 90. Specifically, Memphis struggled to stop the pass a year ago, ranking No. 99 in that specific category. The Tigers lost their best linebacker from that team, Curtis Atkins, and his 100 tackles, but their best pass rusher is back.

If the Memphis defense takes a step forward, it starts and ends with defensive end Bryce Huff. As a junior, Huff led the team in tackles for loss and sacks – and no one came particularly close. Huff recorded 19 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks in that junior campaign. No other Tiger hit double digits in TFLs or topped six sacks. He’s a projected late-round NFL draft pick in 2020 and was named to the Bednarik Award watch list, given to the nation’s best defender.

It’s a rough way for Ole Miss to open the season, and it truly sets the tone for the season and the future of the program. A win breeds optimism for the future and a loss will surely spark overreaction and calls for demise. But I actually think Ole Miss can go to the Liberty Bowl and pull this one off. They’ll need to get the passing game going early, and a win will surely be a shootout. I see Ole Miss getting the season going with a good start and a win over the Tigers, but Memphis having the better season as a whole.

Prediction: 8-4, Third in AAC

Previous Previews:
Alabama
Arkansas
Auburn
California
Florida
Georgia 
Kentucky
LSU 


Nathanael Gabler covers Ole Miss and high school sports for the Oxford Eagle. You can reach him at nathanael.gabler@oxfordeagle.com with news tips, suggestions or comments. Follow @ngabler4 on Twitter.