Antonio Gibson

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No. 17 Memphis secures AAC championship, likely punching ticket to Cotton Bowl

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After losing two consecutive AAC Championship Games the past two years, No. 17 Memphis (12-1, 7-1 AAC) has finally cleared the final hurdle and is celebrating a long-awaited American Athletic Conference championship. The Tigers edged No. 20 Cincinnati (10-3, 7-1 AAC) on Saturday afternoon in the AAC Championship Game, 29-24, to win the first outright conference championship in program history since winning the 1969 Missouri Valley Conference title.

This one came with plenty of late-game drama and heroics.

Midway through the fourth quarter, with Memphis leading 23-21, Cincinnati chose to try a quarterback sneak for a first down and got it. But a video replay was called to determine if Cincinnati had too many men on the field. After a lengthy review, the official ruling determined there was not enough video evidence to confirm there were too many men on the field, allowing Cincinnati to continue the drive rather than move back five yards on fourth down. The drive ended with a go-ahead field goal when the Bearcats opted to take the lead rather than try their luck on another 4th-and-1 situation. Hindsight is always 20/20, of course, but the Tigers stormed right down the field on the ensuing possession.

Memphis strung together a 10-play drive that featured Antonio Gibson doing damage on the ground with his speed on the edges and a big pass from Brady White to Kenneth Gainwell to get into Cincinnati territory quickly. White’s six-yard pass to Gibson gave Memphis a 29-24 lead with 1:14 to play, but a two-point conversion failing allowed Cincinnati one last chance to take the lead. On 4th and 15 from the Memphis 26-yard line though, Desmond Ridder‘s last attempt fell incomplete and allowed Memphis to run out the remaining 26 seconds off the clock.

There are a number of moving parts to this story now. For starters, there is the New Years Six situation. Given each team’s ranking coming into the game, it was expected this would essentially be a play-in game for the Group of 5’s spot in the New Years Six, even with Boise State handling their business in the Mountain West Conference Championship Game (and Appalachian State getting its last chance to make a case earlier in the day). That idea still feels pretty solid, with an official announcement to be made Sunday afternoon by the College Football Playoff selection committee. It would be a pretty big shock if AAC CHAMPION is not heading to the Cotton Bowl to face an at-large team from a power conference (Baylor, Florida, Alabama, Penn State and more could all be options).

The other moving part here is the status of Memphis head coach Mike Norvell. Norvell is expected to be named the next head coach at Florida State. Florida State will hold a press conference tomorrow to officially introduce its next head coach. All that might be left to figure out is whether or not Norvell will pull double duty for the next few weeks to coach Memphis in the Cotton Bowl or if he leaves to take on the Florida State job on a full-time basis with an early signing period creeping up.

Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell may still have his name thrown around the rumor mill as the coaching carousel continues to spin, but he is not currently attached to any rumors regarding imminent changes.

With NY6 up for grabs, Cincinnati leading Memphis at halftime

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Memphis and Cincinnati are locked in a good one in this year’s American Athletic Conference championship game in the Liberty Bowl. A spot in the New Years Six is very likely up for grabs between the two. At halftime in Memphis, it is Cincinnati leading the game 14-10.

A week after coming up short in the same stadium against the same team, Cincinnati wanted to jump out to a lead as early as possible. The Bearcats did just that with a touchdown on the game’s opening possession. After Memphis attempted an onside kick to start the game, Cincinnati recovered the football for great starting field position. A field goal on a 4th & 5 from the Memphis 15-yard line was good but the Tigers were called for a running into the kicker penalty. Cincinnati capitalized on the free first down with Michael Warren II running sic yards for a touchdown a couple of plays later.

Memphis would respond with a field goal on the ensuing possession and the Tigers took the lead the next time the offense stepped on the field. Receiver Antonio Gibson gave Memphis the lead on a 65-yard run. Similar to the mistake by Memphis earlier, a Cincinnati penalty for running into the punter gave the Tigers renewed life on the drive.

Brady White has been one of the top passers in the nation this season but he has had a rough outing so far today. White has completed just eight of his 21 pass attempts. He has been intercepted once too, but that was on a last-second Hail Mary to close out the first half. White’s 86 passing yards has played well into Cincinnati;’s advantage as the Tigers just cannot find the big plays on offense, outside of the long touchdown run by Gibson. Kenneth Gainwell has been held to just 34 rushing yards on 10 attempts.

Desmond Ridder has had a poor day throwing the football as well with just 9-of-22 for 102 yards and no touchdowns, but he has added 96 rushing yards and a touchdown to give Cincinnati the lead at the half.

We have a huge second half on tap in Memphis. Winner (likely) goes to the Cotton Bowl waving the AAC banner.

Memphis, Navy headline AAC football award winners

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Ahead of the American Athletic Conference’s championship game this weekend, one of its participants is, not surprisingly, well-represented in the latest league to release its postseason award winners.

Very late Wednesday afternoon, the AAC announced the winners of its five major awards based on regular-season play.  Memphis, which will square off with Cincinnati in the league’s title game Saturday, claimed two of those honors, as did Navy.

Below are those recipients:

AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Malcolm Perry, QB, Navy

AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Quincy Roche, DE, Temple

AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE CO-SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYERS OF THE YEAR
Dane Roy, P, Houston
Antonio Gibson, WR/KR, Memphis

AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Kenneth Gainwell, RB, Memphis

AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE COACH OF THE YEAR
Ken Niumatalolo, Navy

The All-AAC teams were also unveiled, with just two players being unanimous selections — Memphis redshirt freshman running back Kenneth Gainwell, SMU senior wide receiver James Proche.  For the complete list of first- and second-teams as well as honorable mentions, click HERE.

No. 18 Memphis beats No. 19 Cincinnati, clinches AAC title berth vs. Cincinnati

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The Cincinnati-Memphis game was so good, they’re going to do it again at the same place next week.

The No. 19 Tigers beat the 18th-ranked Bearcats 34-24, at once clinching the American West Division title and, by virtue of the head-to-head Friday, secures home field advantage for next week’s American Championship against the East champion — which happens to be Cincinnati.

Memphis (11-1, 7-1 AAC) opened the game perfectly, as Chris Claybrooks took the opening kickoff 94 yards back for a touchdown. After a Cincinnati (10-2, 7-1 AAC) field goal, the Tigers moved 77 yards in sevens snaps and took a 14-3 lead on a 9-yard Brady White pass to Kedarian Jones at the 7:24 mark of the first quarter.

The Tigers then forced a four-and-out and moved back inside the Bearcat red zone, but the drive stalled and Mike Norvell settled for a 34-yard Riley Patterson field goal, pushing the Memphis lead to 17-3 after the first quarter.

But then Cincinnati answered, launching drives of 12 and 14 plays that traveled 85 and 80 yards and consumed 11 and a half minutes of clock. Ben Bryant‘s 4-yard pass to Leonard Taylor pulled the ‘Cats within 17-10 at the 12:36 mark of the second quarter, and Michael Warren II‘s 3-yard run with 2:54 left in the first half tied the game.

Memphis struck back quickly, though, as White found Damonte Coxie for a 54-yard gain that took the ball from the Memphis 36-yard line to the Cincinnati 10, but the drive moved no further and the Tigers settled for a second short Patterson field goal.

Neither team scored in the third quarter, though not for lack of trying. Memphis forced two Cincinnati fumbles in the third quarter, but turned them into zero points. The first was recovered at midfield but the Tiger offense went backward, punting from their own 46. One possession later, Jonathan Wilson sacked Bryant at his own 45 and ripped the ball out, allowing the Tigers to take over at the Bearcats’ 43 and drive all the way to their 16, but White’s 4th-and-2 pass to Joey Magnifico was not quite magnificent, sailing out of bounds for a turnover on downs.

Cincinnati then took over at its own 16 and moved to the Memphis 17, almost exclusively on the ground, but Warren was stuffed on a 4th-and-1 run at the 2:02 mark of the third quarter.

Still leading 20-17, Memphis pushed the lead to 10 when White found Coxie behind the defense on an end-around pass for a 46-yard score, but Cincinnati answered when Bryant hit Alec Pierce for 51 yards on a 3rd-and-15 from his own 33, pushing the ball to the Memphis 16. Bryant rushed in from 12 yards out to pull Cincinnati within 27-24 with 10:27 remaining.

After Memphis came up empty twice in the third quarter, it was now Cincinnati’s turn to create nothing out of a turnover, as Ahmad Gardner picked White at the Bearcats’ 26, but Cincinnati immediately went three-and-out.

Cincinnati should have answered with its own three-and-out, but a White incompletion was nullified by an unsportsmanlike conduct flag against Cincinnati’s Myjai Sanders, and three plays later Antonio Gibson raced in a 29-yard touchdown carry, giving Memphis a 10-point lead with 3:16 to play. The Bearcats were then forced to pass, which was not part of the plan with their backup quarterback, and Bryant was intercepted by Blake Sanchez, Jr., near midfield with 1:35 left.

The win pushed Memphis into the American Championship for the third straight season. Norvell’s team lost to an undefeated UCF team in 2017-18, but next Saturday’s game will be the first time the Tigers get to play for the conference championship at the Liberty Bowl.

No. 24 Memphis overwhelms No. 15 SMU, ends Mustangs’ undefeated dream

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No. 15 SMU came to Memphis Saturday with dreams of an undefeated season, its first American championship and a long-awaited return to the Cotton Bowl as the Group of 5’s New Year’s Six representative. Mike Norvell‘s Tigers may have ended all of that in one night.

Before a sold out Liberty Bowl and with the full power of the ESPN/ABC tractor beam focused squarely on them, No. 24 Memphis made the absolute most of the opportunity with a 54-48 win.

As the final score indicates, Memphis’s offense was simply too much for SMU. Brady White completed 19-of-33 passes for 350 yards and three touchdowns, while Kenneth Gainwell rushed for 88 yards and a touchdown, and Antonio Gibson caught six passes for 130 yards and a touchdown and added a 78-yard touchdown run, but it was his play on special teams that handed the Tigers control of the game.

Leading 23-17 at the half, Gibson ripped off a 97-yard kickoff return touchdown, putting the Tigers up 30-17 and putting the Mustangs in chase mode for the rest of the game.

To its credit, SMU’s offense never let the game get out of reach. The Mustangs scored to pull within 30-24, then, after Memphis scored 10 straight, pulled within 40-32 on a 30-yard touchdown pass from Shane Buechele to Kylen Granson. Buechele threw for 456 yards and three scores o the night.

Memphis then ran off 14 unanswered points, including the backbreaker in Gibson’s 78-yard touchdown run, where he pinballed off a number of SMU defenders while also setting the school’s single-game all-purpose yardage record with 368 yards.

That play gave Memphis a 54-32 lead with 9:31 to play, but still SMU did not fold. Ke’Mon Freeman ripped off a 68-yard rush to pull the Ponies within 54-40, and then a 12-play, 84-yard touchdown drive — complete with a 2-point conversion pass to their left tackle — gave SMU a chance to win the game with the recovery of an onside kick, but Memphis hopped on the ball to secure one of the biggest wins in school history.

The Tigers (8-1, 4-1 AAC) are now in control of their own destiny in the American West, while SMU (8-1, 4-1 AAC) needs another Memphis loss to win the division.