November 10, 2015

The nation's most opportunistic team has a chance to capitalize on another favorable situation.

Likely in the driver's seat for a New Year's Six bowl, No. 16 Houston begins a make-or-break stretch with Saturday night's visit from a 25th-ranked Memphis team that put the Cougars in that position.

The first-ever meeting of ranked American Athletic Conference schools harbors major ramifications for the conference and nationally, though the showdown did lose a little luster after the previously undefeated Tigers lost 45-20 to Navy last week. The result left Houston (9-0, 5-0) and the 22nd-ranked Midshipmen as the lone remaining unbeatens in the West Division, with the teams to face off in Houston in the regular-season finale Nov. 27.

Memphis (8-1, 4-1) still remains very much alive in the race, however, and can enhance its national profile with back-to-back big road games Saturday and at No. 21 Temple next week.

''We don't necessarily control our own destiny in the league race, but we can still be a factor in it,'' Tigers coach Justin Fuente said.

The stakes involved add to an already intriguing clash of powerhouse offenses that rank in the top 10 in the FBS in scoring and total yards, each led by dynamic quarterbacks in Houston dual-threat Greg Ward Jr. and Memphis' Paxton Lynch.

Based on last week's results, both figure to present considerable matchup problems for the opposing defense.

Ward, whose 92.1 rushing yards per game trail only Navy's Keenan Reynolds for tops among FBS signal-callers, prepares to face a Tigers unit that was gashed for 374 yards and five touchdowns on the ground by the Midshipmen. The 6-foot-7 Lynch, gaining steam as a potential first-round pick in next year's NFL draft, pits a passing attack averaging 352.1 yards against a Cougars secondary that permitted 523 yards and four touchdowns to Cincinnati's Gunner Kiel a week ago.

Houston did intercept Kiel twice, with Brandon Wilson returning one for a critical touchdown that helped the Cougars earn a 33-30 win. Houston also recorded a safety and got a second-chance touchdown when the Bearcats were flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct following a fourth-and-goal stop.

"We understand that this is the meat of our schedule, and most of the games down the stretch here are going to be like this," Cougars coach Tom Herman said. "For us to take the first step here was important for us."

Houston added to its nation-leading total of 25 takeaways after producing three against Cincinnati and also tops the FBS with a plus-16 turnover margin. The Cougars forced five turnovers, including three Lynch interceptions, in last season's 28-24 triumph at Memphis that extended their series winning streak to five and gave the Tigers their lone conference loss of 2014.

The Tigers haven't beaten Houston since a 35-20 road decision Oct. 15, 2005, though their eight-game road winning streak trails only Ohio State for the longest in the FBS.

Lynch has been intercepted just twice in 327 pass attempts this season and brings a string of eight consecutive 300-yard passing efforts into the matchup.

Ward also ranks among the national leaders with 16 rushing touchdowns and is coming off a 119-yard rushing effort against Cincinnati. Though Memphis couldn't contain Navy's option offense, it did limit Reynolds to 38 yards on 17 attempts and held Ole Miss to 40 rushing yards in its 37-24 signature win over the then-No. 13 Rebels on Oct. 17.

Houston also sports a couple notable results versus Power 5 schools, having won at Louisville and dealing SEC member Vanderbilt a 34-0 loss two weeks back.

"You start comparing games across the country and you see what they did to Vanderbilt. Then, Vanderbilt and Florida play a 9-7 game. Then you start to understand the level Houston is playing at," Fuente said. "It is pretty impressive."

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