|Memphis playing for something vs. East Carolina|
Memphis, ranked No. 20 in the latest CFP rankings, has already locked up a berth in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game, but the Tigers still have something to play for when they host East Carolina on Saturday at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.
With a loss by Central Florida to South Florida, Memphis would host the conference championship game next week. Otherwise, the Tigers would head to Orlando, Fla., for a second crack at the undefeated Knights.
"We've talked a lot about the focus that it takes to get to this point, to not get caught up by any distraction, by any outside influence, to control what we can control," Memphis coach Mike Norvell said. "And our guys have done a great job of that."
East Carolina (3-8) arrives in Memphis riding the momentum of its best win of year. Quarterback Gardner Minshew threw for a career-high 444 yards and four touchdowns, and Trevor Brown had a school-record 270 yards receiving and two touchdowns in the Pirates' 48-20 win over Cincinnati last week.
"I can see our level of play catching up and getting to the level of some of our other conference opponents, but this is one of the highest levels and it's good that we have this test at the end of the year," ECU coach Scottie Montgomery said.
"Our guys are fired up for it. We've got a quarterback playing well, some of our young receivers playing really well, our offensive line is starting to play a little bit better and our running back game is changing and getting better."
Minshew, a junior, moved into the starting role to start November and has passed for more than 400 yards in two of his three starts. Brown has been his primary target. Brown is averaging nine receptions and 161 yards in his last three games with Minshew as the starter.
"We have another explosive opponent that's going to come into the Liberty Bowl on Senior Day, and it provides our football team with an opportunity to attempt to get our 10th win," Norvell said of ECU.
"That's a big milestone for our program. We also have the opportunity to go undefeated at the Liberty Bowl this year, which is something that's big. But it's also a day to celebrate the seniors. This is the winningest senior class in Memphis Tigers history, and they love playing at home, they love being able to represent this great community, and they're looking forward to the one more guaranteed opportunity that we have here in front of us.
"Just like every week," Norvell added, "our message has not changed, we've got to continue to progress. We know that we've earned one more game, one more opportunity, but for us to accomplish all of the things that we need to do, we have to get better today. We've got to continue to progress and prepare at the highest level here this week, and we've got to come out and play our best game Saturday."
The Pirates' offense will need to have another big game to keep up with a Memphis attack averaging 42.0 points per game. Quarterback Riley Ferguson has completed 61.9 percent of his passes for 3,201 yards with 29 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
In rainy, windy conditions, Ferguson passed for 320 yards and two touchdowns, and running back Darrell Henderson rushed for 147 yards two scores to help Memphis pull away from SMU last week. The win clinched the American West Division for the Tigers, who racked up 664 total yards against the Mustangs.
"Memphis is a very, very talented football team that's also coached well," Montgomery said. "We've been against speed before and this team is a fast team as well. This is probably the most skilled football team."
Saturday's game will be the first meeting between Memphis and East Carolina since 2012. The Pirates have won the last seven games against the Tigers but will be heavy underdogs on Saturday.
"This is a football team that has played well, played with skill and will continue to get better," Montgomery said of the Tigers. "This is a team that you look at and from a skill standpoint, you have to get to this level to be able to compete for championships in this league and they've done a really, really good job at it."