The Memphis Tigers are getting a huge opportunity in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. The Penn State Nittany Lions are a solid brand name and the opponent in the December 28 bowl game in Arlington, TX at Jerry World.
Speaking of opportunities, Mike Norvell got one to go to Florida State and a whole lot of understanding minds were happy to see him get the chance to go to Tallahassee. With a head coaching vacancy, Memphis acted past and promoted Ryan Silverfield, who was already slated to be the head coach for the bowl game, to the chief sideline role. The switch from Norvell to Silverfield hasn’t done anything to impact the betting line, which had already gone from Penn State -7.5 down to -6.5. The total hasn’t moved much from 60.5.
Silverfield was the offensive line coach and “deputy head coach” under Norvell. His four seasons with the program and the support of the coaching staff and the players allowed Memphis to expedite the process and simply promote from within. Interim head coach situations in bowl games are often confusing in a handicapping context, but we don’t have to worry about that here with what seemed to be a coach-in-waiting on the sideline.
Not much should change for Memphis in the bowl game. Hopefully nothing changes for Memphis backers and fans. The Tigers ranked eighth in the country in yards per play with 6.90. The defense ranked 36th in yards per play allowed. The obvious caveat here is that Memphis played the 70th-ranked schedule.
Penn State played the 43rd-ranked schedule, which is actually pretty light considering Michigan, Ohio State, and Iowa, all top 20 teams, were on the slate. Memphis played one top 30 team per Jeff Sagarin. Penn State played four, with Minnesota the other. Against a strong schedule, the Nittany Lions held the opposition to 4.67 yards per play, which ranked 10th nationally. Not surprisingly, there was a huge gap between performance against unranked opponents and those aforementioned four teams. Penn State allowed 5.54 yards per play to the ranked teams and held the eight unranked opponents to just 4.2 yards per play.
Memphis, despite being a Group of Five team, is a lot closer to those ranked teams and is in this spot because the Tigers were the highest-ranked Group of Five team at the end of the regular season. Memphis did only have 6.15 yards per play in three games against ranked foes and only 5.3 yards per play in the AAC Championship Game against Cincinnati.
There are a lot of questions about this game. Can Memphis keep up its prolific pace facing a top-10 caliber defense? Can Penn State keep up offensively if need be? Penn State played a tougher schedule, but it wasn’t terribly daunting and the Nittany Lions only managed 5.94 yards per play and tied for 57th nationally.
Maybe things will improve for the bowl game with offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne now serving as the head coach at Old Dominion. To this point, head coach James Franklin hasn’t said who will call the offensive plays for the Cotton Bowl. You have to wonder about Penn State’s motivation level for this game. There were some players who felt that the Rose Bowl would come calling, but West Division champ Wisconsin got the opportunity to play Oregon.
This is something of a zero-sum game for Penn State now. If they win, they’re supposed to beat the Group of Five teams. If they lose, the court of public opinion will decide what it means. Penn State already has 10 wins, so that isn’t exactly a big motivating factor. The development of Will Levis with some extra practices could help a lot going forward, but that can also be done in the spring.
My personal power rating line on the game is 6, so the line move down from 7.5 doesn’t surprise me in the least. When you consider the motivational angles for this game, you have to like what it means for Memphis. The new head coach is already entrenched and Norvell left on very amicable terms. The chance to take down a Power Five team with a name like Penn State is something that should keep Memphis very focused and engaged. Penn State has less motivation to be sure. Franklin’s teams have also played a lot of close bowl games.
Pick: Memphis +6.5