Instant Analysis: Memphis upsets Ole Miss, is now dark-horse playoff threat
Despite falling into a 14–0 hole within the first seven minutes of Saturday's game, Memphis stormed back to beat No. 13 Ole Miss 37–24. The Tigers now sit at 6–0, and have a very real chance to make a run at an undefeated regular season. Here are three takeaways from Memphis’s afternoon upset.
1. Memphis has become a dark-horse College Football Playoff threat
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, keep in mind that it’s only mid-October, and plenty can change between now and Championship Saturday. The American Athletic Conference is surprisingly deep this season, with Houston, Temple, East Carolina and Navy all boasting strong outfits.
Still, this Memphis team is very good. And with its toughest matchup suddenly in the rearview mirror, it now seems like a real possibility that the Tigers could spark an outpouring of playoff debate come November and December.
Let’s start with what they did well Saturday. Quarterback Paxton Lynch, the 6’ 7”, 245-pound redshirt junior who was overlooked as a recruit coming out of Deltona, Fla., went 39 of 52 for 383 yards with three touchdowns and only one interception that came on a deflection in which his pass bounced straight up in the air. Lynch was at his best when it mattered most: He went 4 of 5 during the drive that pushed Memphis’s lead to 24–14 before the half, and completed two third-down attempts on the opening drive of the third quarter to help make the score 31–14.
The Tigers’ defense, meanwhile, gave up 440 total yards, but even that's slightly deceiving. Sixty-eight came via a receiver pass from Laquon Treadwell to Quincy Adeboyejo on Ole Miss’s second play from scrimmage. This unit, too, shined in big situations. It limited the Rebels to a 30.8% conversion rate on third downs (4 of 13) and stuffed them on a pair of pivotal fourth-down tries. (More on that below.)
Most impressive, Memphis went from the brink of being blown out to in command for the final 40 minutes of regulation. That’s especially notable against a foe of this caliber. Saturday marked the first time the Tigers knocked off a ranked opponent since they toppled No. 6 Tennessee on Nov. 9, 1996. Now, they’ve downed a team that already defeated Nick Saban and Alabama.
And that’s what makes Memphis's dark-horse résumé so intriguing. The Tigers now become huge Ole Miss fans moving forward. If the Rebels (5–2) respond to win the SEC West (they still have just one conference loss, and hold the tiebreaker over the Crimson Tide), we could land in a situation in which an unbeaten Memphis is vying for a playoff spot against a team it holds a head-to-head win against. Plus, in a year in which no teams appears infallible, it’s conceivable many contenders could end the season with two losses. In that event, would Memphis get the nod?
Memphis’s case is a long shot, sure. But is earning a berth impossible? Hardly.
2. The game shifted on a crucial series in the second quarter
Consider the situation: Ole Miss led 14–7 with just over 12 minutes remaining in the second quarter. The Rebels ran 6’ 4”, 296-pound defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche for no gain on third-and-short from the Memphis 10-yard line, and then handed the ball to sophomore tailback Jordan Wilkins on fourth-and-one. Wilkins lost six yards, and all of the momentum from the Rebels’ quick start was lost.
Going for it on fourth down here is understandable. Freeze has transformed his program into an SEC contender largely by using an ultra-aggressive approach. But continuing to deploy Nkemdiche, Ole Miss’s top defensive player and a candidate to be the No. 1 overall pick in next spring’s NFL draft, on offense is questionable at best. It’s a lot of fun when it’s working, but it also leaves him vulnerable to injury. That’s exactly what happened on Saturday. Nkemdiche missed the remainder of the game with a concussion, and Lynch and Co. thrived in his absence.
Second-guessing aside, this series shifted the matchup. Following the turnover on downs, Memphis outscored Ole Miss 24–0 over the next 15:26 of game time.
3. Justin Fuente is going to be a man in demand this winter
It’s hard to understate just how impressive a job Fuente has done in Memphis. The fourth-year coach inherited a program that had gone 5–31 over its previous three seasons. He finished 7–17 over his first two years in 2012 and ’13, and since then he has only gone 16–3, a stretch that includes a victory over BYU in last year’s Miami Beach Bowl. Memphis has won 13 consecutive games; it won 11 from 2008-11 combined.
With this off-season’s coaching carousel shaping up to be wild, expect Fuente to be a candidate for numerous high-profile jobs. Three Power Five head coaches have already been fired—USC’s Steve Sarkisian, Maryland’s Randy Edsall and Illinois’s Tim Beckham—and South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier stepped down on Monday night of this week. After Fuente reshaped Memphis from a farce into a force, expect a big-time program to want him to do the same.