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The Big College Football Game of The Week Preview: Arkansas State vs. Memphis

The Red Wolves and Tigers open their seasons on Saturday, with the American Conference team almost a three TD favorite.

Coye’ Fairman of the Memphis Tigers during the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic at AT&T Stadium on December 28, 2019 in Arlington, Texas Photo by Benjamin Solomon/Getty Images

It’s a matchup necessitated by Covid, but one that provides plenty of intrigue ahead of the 2020 season. Can Memphis return to the top of the AAC? Will Arkansas State be a contender in the Sun Belt as they had been previously this decade? And what about two interesting quarterbacks with potential but also some holes in their game.

You’ll get all of it in the FBS nightcap on Saturday of Week 1 when the Arkansas State Red Wolves travel about an hour southeast to take on the Memphis Tigers in the Liberty Bowl.

Who: Arkansas Red Wolves vs. Memphis Tigers
Where: Liberty Bowl, Memphis, Tennessee
When: Saturday, September 5th, 8 p.m. ET
TV: ESPN
Odds: Memphis -19.5, Total 72

Wait, 72?? Really??

This will Memphis’ first game without Mike Norvell on the sidelines since 2015, as he heads to Florida State having finally won a conference championship before leaving. He’s replaced by his former assistant Ryan Silverfield, but the system won’t be a complete overhaul as the new coach has been with the Tigers since 2016. That makes him a part of three American Conference West Division titles and one AAC Championship in 2019.

He served as the run game coordinator and O-line coach, so the tempo of the Tigers offense shouldn’t change too much under his tutelage. Memphis was 10th in the nation in yards per play (6.6) in 2019, and returns 14 of 22 starters and 64 letterwinners overall.

Brady White is back for his redshirt senior season, and he’s expected to have a big campaign. The QB finished fifth in the nation in yards per attempt last season (9.5), throwing for 4014, 33 TD’s, and 11 INT’s. White needs to sure up his consistency for NFL scouts, but shows flashes of being an elite passer. The Arizona State transfer will have the keys all season, but loses one of the best names and players in the conference in senior tight end Joey Magnifico.

He’ll also lose some productivity at wide receiver, but in tailback Kenny Gainwell he’ll have an explosive option. With 231 carries for 1459 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, he became the latest in a long line of terrific backs out of U of M including Darrell Henderson and Patrick Taylor. Add in 51 catches for 610 additional yards, and you’ve got one of the most complete returning backfield players in America.

Arkansas State finished 8-5 in 2019, and the Red Wolves returns 48 lettermen and 13 starters, including eight All-Sun Belt selections from a year ago. There’s no coaching staff turnover under Blake Anderson, now 47-29 in six seasons in Jonesboro. He’s won two Sun Belt titles and been to six bowl games, which is pretty impressive for a program that had a revolving door at head coach before his arrival.

Redshirt junior Logan Bonner returns at at QB for Arkansas State, who played in the first four games of 2019 before a hand injury shut him down for the season and preserved a year of eligibility. At 6’1, 220 lbs., he enters riding a streak of 140 consecutive passes without an interception, the sixth-longest streak in FBS. His 10 TD’s and just one INT in 2019 came on 91/153 for 1052 yards.

Omar Bayless is gone after over 1600 yards receiving last season, but Jonathan Adams Jr. returns following 851 and five TD’s in 2019. The senior should be the primary option and have plenty of balls thrown his way. There’s also a tailback in Marcel Murray that’s added 324 carries for 1680 yards in his first two college seasons. Don’t be surprised to see Murray on special teams as well, as they’ll look for ways to get him the ball in space.

The pick

Yes, both teams return quarterbacks, but in a Covid world that’s shortened install time and live hitting in August, can we really expect teams to be putting up 40 and 50 points after limited practices? The defenses should be far ahead of the offenses early in the season, and depth at many positions will be tested. We’ll be a solid under here until someone can show they can be in mid-season form moving the ball. And that might take awhile.

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