Both the city of Memphis and the 24th-ranked Memphis Tigers are ready for their national close-up in prime time.
ESPN's "College GameDay" will be in Memphis for the first time for football, broadcasting on Beale Street with fans wondering whether Justin Timberlake or Tigers basketball coach Penny Hardaway shows up on stage. Then the party moves to the Liberty Bowl, where the Tigers host No. 15 SMU under the lights Saturday night.
It's the first time both the Tigers and their opponent are ranked for a game at the Liberty Bowl; Memphis and the visiting Mustangs are embracing the marquee matchup.
"We're excited about the opportunity, we're excited about the stage and the platform of which we're going to have the opportunity to play on ...," Memphis coach Mike Norvell said. "I think it's incredible. I think the fact our program is going to be showcased on that stage in that light for this game it's big for everybody involved."
The winner takes the lead in the American Athletic Conference's Western Division as each team chases a New Year's Six opportunity.
SMU (8-0, 4-0) remained undefeated with a 34-31 victory over Houston last week, and coach Sonny Dykes said this game is good for a conference still fighting for respect. It's not bad either for a program off to its best start since 1982 when the Mustangs won their first 10 games.
"It's an opportunity to establish a little bit of credibility for us," Dykes said. "I don't know the last time SMU had a prime-time football game was, but I would imagine it's been awhile. So those are always opportunities to put your best foot forward and get on people's radar."
Memphis squeaked by 42-41 last week when Tulsa missed a 29-yard field goal as time expired, and the Tigers (7-1, 3-1) have won five straight in this series.
Some other things to look for when No. 24 Memphis plays host to No. 15 SMU:
This game features two of the nation's top 10 scoring offenses with SMU sixth averaging 43 points a game having scored 40 or more in six different games. Memphis isn't far behind at No. 10 overall averaging 39.5 points, and the Tigers score quickly. They are first nationally with 22 plays of 40 yards or longer and second with 13 plays 50 yards or longer.
BEST RUNNING BACK
SMU and Memphis have the best running backs in the conference. Senior Xavier Jones ranks fourth in FBS running for 14 touchdowns for SMU, while Kenneth Gainwell is ninth nationally with 11 TDs.
Jones has topped 100 yards in six games this season, and Gainwell has run for 100 yards in six straight games.
Gainwell also leads the nation with five plays from scrimmage of 50 yards or longer, and the freshman is second nationally with 1,419 all-purpose yards. Dykes isn't sure there is a better running back in the country than Gainwell.
"He's got a great combination of strength, elusiveness and then speed," Dykes said. "Most guys will have one of the three or two of the three. Very few have all three. He can make you miss, he can run by you, he can run through you. He can catch the ball. He's physical. He's tough. He finishes runs. He's just a special, special football player."
SACK THE QB
SMU ranks second nationally with 36 total sacks averaging 4 ½ per game. Memphis has allowed only 12 despite having to replace three starting offensive linemen this season. The Mustangs have had five or more sacks in four games this season with three featuring 10 or more tackles for loss. Senior linebacker Patrick Nelson already has 10 sacks.
Memphis ranks 25th nationally averaging 282.5 yards passing thanks to Brady White. He's thrown for 2,161 yards with 20 TDs, and he's fifth in the country for passing efficiency and yards per pass attempt (10.3).
White has plenty of options with five Tigers having caught a pass longer than 50 yards this season.
SMU could be without senior wide receiver Reggie Roberson Jr. who leads the Mustangs with 803 yards receiving on 43 catches. He hurt a foot in the first quarter of SMU's last game and was in a walking boot with crutches after the game. Dykes said Monday that the injury was being evaluated to determine just how serious it is with Roberson's foot swollen and sore.
Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker